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E-Bombs

I’ve stumbled into the stage of life where the world’s gotten too far ahead of me.

I swore it would never happen because I’d never let it. I was just too cool for that.

Blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, multitasking — hey, I could do it all. Only recently have I begun to feel a little blitzed by the leakage of online newspapers, journals and videos that I blot up with supersaturated eyeballs. Not to mention social media and the email tsunami. In fact, I think all this input is starting to make me sick. So, mindful that I have only one cerebral cortex — and one not-so-gently-used nervous system — I’ve been cutting back. For all my tech-savvy ways, I still value peace and quiet and thoughtfulness, including the care of virtual online friends.

All of which, it seems, has become uncool.

My plan got a boost from two etiquette stink-bombs that arrived in my email Sunday.

If you’re a younger reader, better cue your great-aunt. She will appreciate this (Or, failing that, Helen Mirren in The Queen).

Let me explain that the previous night, I’d attended a very enjoyable dinner party and so I emailed my thanks to the host, and thought no more about it. Later in the day, another guest at the party also emailed a thank-you — and copied me. It was a kind of “hi guys” greeting, including a vaguely smartass remark about the host, but never mind — who the hell wants to be copied on a flippin’ thank-you note??? Get real! Since when do you advertise your dubious “courtesy” to the  other guests? Was this some kind of weird postmodern irony? Doesn’t anyone live offstage anymore?

I suppose I’ll soon be awarded my septugenarian string of pearls, but I just can’t cope with that much self-regard.

So on to Etiquette Bomb #2.

Backstory: I shut the computer down at 9pm. That’s every night, no exceptions. “To everything there is a season.” I work from 9 to 6 weekdays and I take Sunday off. So never NEVER send me a demanding email on a Sunday night — or any night — that begins with (in the subject line!) “I need….” It conveys the tone of “right now, goddamn it!”

If you want to work nonstop, fine, but (ahem) take a deep breath, consider how the human being on the other end might react to your words, and then write: “Would you (please) send me….”

My response to this individual was to tell her she’d have the item in the morning.

There’s a nice linguistic distinction in Italian: Not voglio (I want) but the more genteel vorrei (I would like). French has this, too, and so, I imagine, do a lot of other languages. Can’t we take the time anymore for the nuances of expression? Why are we in such a hurry to turn ourselves into robotic sub-literates?

Believe me, I felt like I’d nibbled on some magic mushroom and followed Alice through the looking-glass. The distorted world reflected back to me by these two incidents made me wonder if I’d grown old and out of it overnight.

All this has me thinking Big Thoughts.

Why are we here? Do we exist to work our butts off, ending up with repetitive-strain injury to our texting finger and a bunch of wires sticking out of our ears?

There are other alternatives.

Think about it. Life is short.

Life can be rich in kindness and relationships. Or not.

The choice is yours.

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Poem for Rosie

photo: Roger_Paw

photo of Rosie: Roger_Paw

Those of you who follow this blog know about my interest in a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks, Bobby and Rosie, whose turf is New York City’s Washington Square Park. For reasons unknown to their fans, NYU, which sponsored their webcam, decided to shut it down last spring. Did Rosie miss her worldwide audience? She’s not talking — we’ll never know. What we do know is that this fine haggard has not been seen in the park since last September.

We’re not sure what’s become of her. Hawks mate for life, and her absence may mean that she perished in an accident. January is nest-building/renovating season for hawks, so no doubt Mother Nature will provide Bobby with a new female companion soon.

Rosie and Bobby were the parents of three delightful broods: Boo and Scout (2012), Kiku, Archie and Judson (2013) and Orla and Silver (2014).

Here is a poem for Rosie:

 

Bless Rosie, vanished now,
proud haggard of Washington Square,
matriarch of springtime, three nests full,
her young clumped under her wing —

bless the infinite strangeness of who she is,
a living wilderness, gliding across cities.

Bless Bobby, her mate, who’d mount the axis of her body,
wings outstretched, as if she were the whole earth bending toward the sun,
who waits on a lone branch for the length of days
to bring her home.

And if she does not return,
a solitary hawk will come to him,
to the small park, where they will bend the sky
into each other.

There will be young in a new nest
who will one day vanish, as Rosie did,
as if she had never come, or never left.

 

© Carole Giangrande

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The Hawk Is Always There

Busy as the weekend was (with holidays fast approaching), a few moments of abundant joy found their way into my hectic space. I hadn’t planned for this to happen. In fact I was so frazzled that I might have missed out altogether. Sometimes you just get lucky.

In the Christian tradition, it’s the beginning of Advent, the hopeful season of great anticipation before Christmas. To be truthful, I hadn’t given it much thought. You might say I tripped over my own version: an awareness that something wondrous is humming under the surface of existence, ready to break into the ordinary world. Now and again I sense this, whatever the season. IMG_4317

Here’s how it started: Between Saturday grocery-shopping and household chores, we made a trip to a local birders-supply store where a skilled bird-handler was visiting with his beautiful Great Horned Owl, Alex. By law, raptors may only be owned for educational purposes (or by licenced falconers), and this astonishing bird had all of us — especially the kids — as wide-eyed as the owl.

Her sheer size, her golden eyes and the layered beauty of her feathers was breathtaking.IMG_4320 And yes, the rapport between bird and man had me shaking my head in wonder. Alex sat still, talons resting on her keeper’s gloved hand, then turned her head from side to side, appearing to co-operate with a battery of smartphones by eyeing the flash at exactly the right moment. IMG_4325

There was more. In the back of the store, a woman from the Canadian Peregrine Foundation was demonstrating her Peregrine Falcon, until recently an endangered species. For those of you who don’t know, falcons are among nature’s natural-born killers. Small and streamlined, these feathered fighter-jets can fly at speeds of two hundred kilometres an hour in pursuit of whatever hapless bird gets in the way.

But not Oscar, described by his keeper, as “my boy.” The little guy (15 years old), born in captivity, “imprinted” on his human mother. He’s gentle, doesn’t fuss much (except for an occasional wing-flap). He’ll never be mature enough to live in the wild, but he and his loving mom make the rounds of schools to introduce children to a magnificent creature they might never otherwise see.

And just in case you think nothing can surprise you, watch this little falcon pecking atIMG_4342 “mama’s” nose and her pats and kisses in return. She’s proud of Oscar. She loves this little guy, she’s given fifteen years of her life to his care and as far as I could tell, Oscar is a happy and remarkably affectionate raptor.

The human capacity for love in all its forms is a wonder.

And who’s to say that the falcon, in his own unknowable falcon-ish way, can’t love her back?

I carried this delightful experience in my heart all day and brought it with me to Mass on Saturday evening to observe the beginning of Advent. We attended an intimate campus gathering — a beautiful, simple liturgy that spoke to the awakening of life in these dark days. It conveyed a sense of the wondrous about to break through the surface of ordinary life. It was a beautiful call to the spirit to be watchful, to remain awake.

photo: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

photo: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The following morning at breakfast, I looked out the window and saw a hawk.

I’m new to bird-watching and I’d never spotted one on my own before, not at such close range. It glided down — a good-sized creature — then perched on the hedge close to the window. I glimpsed its slate-coloured back, its ruddy chest, its magnificent aquiline profile. No doubt it was a Cooper’s Hawk. It seemed like an apparition.

After a moment, it spread its wings and flew.

A day later, as I was writing this blog, the hawk returned.

Native Americans see the hawk as a messenger, a creature which embodies wisdom, clear vision and insight; also as one which carries our prayers to the Great Spirit. In the classical framework of Western theology, the idea doesn’t work. We’re linear thinkers and therefore we live inside of time. Yet if we remove time from the equation, if we consider an eternal “present,” then reality shifts. The hawk is always there, waiting to open our eyes.

Some say that all things are possible with God.

Yet faith (or lack of it) doesn’t change the picture. Gifts abound, even on the most ordinary day. It’s far from a perfect world, but we can’t blame the hawks for that. Or even the falcons.

In this holiday season, I wish you moments of wonder.

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Not Your Shrinking Violet

Note: The following was written for the Brockton Writers’ Series blog (www.brocktonwritersseries.wordpress.com) where it was posted two weeks ago to help promote their fifth birthday reading event, where I was one of the readers. It was a fabulous evening! If you’re in Toronto, I highly recommend this series.

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Midsummer front cover (lr)With the release of a new book, a ticking time-bomb always lies in wait, usually in the form of a nasty review. The good news: none of those for Midsummer. The weird news: faint, bleeping signals from the primitive “Who am I?” centre of the brain — and I thought I’d chucked that kind of introspection (along with my love-beads) long ago. Looks like my inner teen has been trying to sort things out.

It’s about ethnicity. Midsummer is a novella set in New York City, on the first day of summer 2000, as an Italian-American family gathers with relatives visiting from Rome. They’re dining at the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center; well below is the subway tunnel dug by their immigrant ancestor. Because of the subject matter, I’ve found myself mingling with Italian-Canadian authors and reading for audiences of the same background. As an immigrant to Canada with an distinctive Italian surname, you’d think I’d fit right in.

Not quite. The more I tuned in to the Italian-Canadian vibe, the more I realized that I wasn’t playing the same chords as the rest of the band. Most of my colleagues had either emigrated from Italy or were the children of immigrants. As a result, themes of loss and exile, struggle and belonging run through the work of Italian-Canadian writers.

This is not my world — not exactly. Apart from travel and efforts to learn the language, I have no connection at all to Italy. My grandparents immigrated to New York City as children more than a century ago. My parents, aunts and uncles spoke the Neapolitan dialect, and while I grew up appreciating Italian food and culture, Italian wasn’t taught in school. Had it been, I would have chosen a different language — Japanese, say — but I was just as happy to study French. I came to Canada for university, married and made my home here. And yes, eventually, I got around to studying Italian.

Ethnicity? I’m American. That’s the country that formed me, the identity to which I lay claim. Only the term “ethnic” pertains to minorities. So, OK — Italian-American, to be precise. Here’s a distinction: my Canadian friends of Italian background return to Sicily or Puglia to be nourished at their roots, while I do the same with the meandering downtown streets of Manhattan, the parks of the Bronx, where I began my life, the leafy corners of Westchester County, the suburb where I later lived.

That said, “American” is a tricky (and sometimes overbearing) identity to claim — not your shrinking-violet next-door neighbour. I used to be an on-air person on CBC Radio, and during the show, my producer would sometimes receive irate calls about my way of pronouncing various words. Is that — an American? the caller would say, is if he or she had been exposed to the scratchings of a large rodent. I worried about losing my job and I worked hard to erase my accent.

I’ve since decided that whatever its flaws, I like the country I come from.

In Canada, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” ethnic slot. As an American, I get to identify myself as such, even if my last name points to a more obvious ethnicity, an ancestral country that is, for me, a vanished place. Instead I cherish the peculiar beauty of Long Island Sound, the intense vitality of Manhattan’s streets, the sharing of common history with loved ones and, yes, the freedom to let my vowels collapse into New Yorkese. Yet, I’m Italian-American — and that’s a bit different from other Americans, as I learned growing up. But that’s a story for another day.

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NovHeader1Heads up, dear readers: I’ll be taking part in a panel at the Toronto International Book Fair this weekend, on “Where is the Italian?” Our job is to complete that sentence, and given what I’ve just posted, you’ll have some idea of what I might have to say. I’ll also be reading a short (relevant) excerpt from my novella Midsummer. That’s Saturday, November 15th, from 4:45 to 5:45pm, Metro Convention Centre, 455 Front St., Toronto. We’re on the ground floor, north bldg, rm. 203b.

And Coming Up: A first for Thoughtful B: next week, I’ll be interviewing author Ursula Pflug on her flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, launching November 17th!

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Thoughtful B’s Biog Blitz

images-1Hello, dear readers — apologies for a long but unavoidable absence. It was an overwhelming spring (book promotion) and a stressful early summer (family matters), so Thoughtful B. more or less kicked back and took the rest of the summer off, surrounded, of course, by reading — both e-books and the old-fashioned kind — along with laundry, shopping, social life, a loving spouse and the care of forty or more houseplants.

As summer draws to a close, I sense that my blogging time will get squeezed as I start in on a new writing project. So today, I’d like to share a short list of summer reads, three books which stood out because they were neither novels, novellas or poetry. All were non-fiction — biography, memoir and autobiography — all by and about remarkable men.

UnknownSome of my books wait around for years before they get read. That was the case with historian Martin Duberman’s masterful Paul Robeson: A Biography (New Press, 1995). It’s a weighty (800 pages with endnotes), definitive biography of the great American singer actor, political activist and the country’s first African-American superstar. Robeson was a generous and gifted man caught in the coils of both the McCarthy witch-hunts and his own naivete about the Soviet state. It’s a riveting history of the mid-twentieth century, a page-turner, and, at that length, a whopper of a read. (BTW, there’s no e-book version to stow in your backpack). Yes, the book’s both a literary triumph and an ergonomic disaster (which explains why it sat on my shelf unread for fifteen years), but I’ve been a Robeson fan for most of my life, and at last I decided that after years of enjoying his magnificent voice, a little tendonitis wasn’t too much to ask. The power and dignity of that great-hearted man and his singing has seen me through many of the world’s dark nights, and a few of my own. For lovers of African-American culture, American history and biography, Duberman’s scholarship and fluid writing make this a must-read.

Unknown-1Next up: If you’ve ever spent a long night in a hospital emergency room, you know what boredom is all about — not to mention the need for reassurance as you hold the hand of a loved one. Calm and friendly, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life on Earth (Random House Canada, 2013) is the go-to book for an all-nighter in the ER. Hadfield did a tour of duty as commander of the International Space Station last year, and his experiences in orbit qualify him as an even-handed guide through some of life’s more stressful situations. Astronauts, he explains — again in his calm, almost affect-less voice — are trained to ask “What is the next thing that can kill you?” (In the ER context, that made me smile). Astronauts analyse every possible problem that might arise in space flight, then master all solutions so that they handle glitches with confidence. He regales us with a few harrowing stories, but his tale is, for the most part, the can-do vision of a bright kid who’d always wanted to be an astronaut, and then made his vision a reality. As commander, the guitar-playing Hadfield made himself an online star with his tweets from space and his gravity-free YouTube performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” While his writing tends to be flat, the story’s inspiring and heartfelt, and during that long night in the ER, I was happy to have the company of a cheerful, engaging Canadian voice, reassuring me that all would be well.

imagesAll’s not so well in the world of Amos Oz, one of Israel’s foremost writers (see my review of his wonderful novel, The Same Sea). Hoping for insight into at least one chunk of Middle East craziness, I turned to his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Harcourt, 2005). Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and grew up in humble circumstances, his young life sandwiched between the final years of the British mandate in Palestine and Israel’s War of Independence. The only child of idealistic European settlers — a pedantic father, frustrated in his ambitions to become a professor, and a cultivated, gifted mother, he read voraciously and bore witness to what is now a lost world: a city and country crammed full of intellectual ferment — Zionism, socialism, agrarian ideals — not to mention kindly relations with middle-class Arab neighbours.

Amos Oz crams his story with unforgettable character profiles and striking anecdotes worthy of Chekhov. It’s a poignant book, circling around the suicide of his mother who suffered from undiagnosed depression. We know early on that she’s taken her own life; over and over again he hovers over this terrible incident, delving at last into unspoken grief in the book’s final pages. It’s a tour de force, full of tales that slide back and forth across time, meandering through consciousness, much the way that all memories do. I believe the book’s about 500 pages long; I read it as an e-book, where it clocked in at 1,075 pages.

That said, I prefer the heft and weight of a hardcover book, dear reader. More about that at another time.

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Tweet for Midsummer!

Join us Saturday June 21st for a live group chat on Twitter @InannaPub to celebrate Midsummer — both the longest day of the year and the novella published by Inanna. Tweet #MidsummerBook from 11 am to 2pm EDT, chat with the author, bring questions, comments, favourite quotes, quick thoughts for a long and beautiful day.

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Apologies, dear reader, for my absence from this blog. Book promotion has taken up much of my time, and I hope to be blogging on a  regular basis soon.

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Something Happened Here: An Elegy for the Nest

One of my most delightful spring rituals has come to an end.  The webcam’s been turned off, the one that gave us an intimate view of Red-tailed Hawks Bobby and Rosie and family, nesting on the twelfth floor of NYU’s Bobst library. Sponsored for two years by the New York Times, the camera was taken over last year by the university which provided us with a chat room as well as a stream of real-time images — fluff-ball eyasses (hawk chicks), clumsy and beguiling, growing up, learning to fly and finally leaving the nest. As, in a sense, have we.

While we don’t know why NYU chose to discontinue the cam, we’re grateful that they’ve kept the chat room open. We meet on Sunday evenings to share information, witty repartee, and links to everything. We may even name Bobby and Rosie’s unhatched babes, their eggs invisible to us. Life goes on.

Yet something happened here that begs reflection. This experience touched many people and occasioned a real outpouring of grief at the news that we would no longer gather around “our” hawks’ nest for the annual rite of rebirth. I know I’m not alone in saying that observing the hawks has been a life-changing experience. For weeks we’d watch the antics of these newly-hatched creatures and the parents which fed and cared for them. Scattered across a continent or two, we wove together our own “nest” of care for the young, and of friendship for each other.

406288448I don’t know when it happened, that observation dissolved into connection, into the wordless sense of ourselves as parents and protectors; for me, an awareness that my humanity was about more than being human. In a deep physical way, I began to realise that we share elementals — hunger and thirst, tenderness and comfort, life and death — with all that lives. Our large brains have given us language and names for these things, but not the things themselves. And I for one might never have experienced the truth of this if I hadn’t discovered the webcam and the nest.

Memories abound. The third of last year’s eyasses, Judson, hatched on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, a poignant witness to life in the midst of death. There was Bobby delivering the morning paper (and Rosie appearing to read it). Rats for breakfast, lunch and dinner; feisty Kiku snatching a rodent from Rosie and swallowing it whole (Who could forget that bulge going down, or that tail hanging out of her beak?). Kiku’s fledge, landing on a police car, Archie taking a tumble on her first flight, and, as always, how we felt watching the fledglings complete their time in the nest, and ours.

For three years, our group has marked the beginning of spring by gathering around to witness the hatching of new life, its growth and struggle and lifting of wings. Like a graduation orIMG_0314 a bar-mitzvah, our own annual ritual carries real meaning, a common understanding and a profound universal story which belongs to us: we are born, grown-up, released to fly into a new world. We say goodbye and by some strange alchemy, that new world begins.

This is not something frivolous. This is not something easy to relinquish.

Yet my awe of Bobby and Rosie is rooted in the understanding that they and their offspring can never belong to us. They belong to the mystery of evolution encoded in their DNA, to the uniqueness of what it is to be a hawk, to a magnificent strangeness that we can only ponder. It’s this otherness that has touched me as the young ones take flight. Every year, it’s been a lure that I can’t resist: my sense of wonder at what I think I understand and never will.

Ritual contains and celebrates these truths as nothing else can.

Because of this experience, I go birdwatching now with my expert husband. Two years ago, I would have felt that this was beyond me. Now I’m in awe of a sky full of birds, of these slight and beautiful creatures, their worldwide migrations.

Thanks to Bobby and Rosie, I love so many more things in this world.

A line of a song comes to mind (from A Chorus Line): “The gift was ours to borrow.”

On the other hand, the magnificent hawks have not gone away.

One day we’ll be with them again.

IMG_0048

View video highlights from the 2013 nest in Washington Square Park at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwjUZ_KPHA&feature=youtu.be

 

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