Christmas Postcard from Los Angeles

SOME TRADITIONS stick;  others evolve and shape-shift.

All of it, in the last few days and hours, has been part of my end-of- the-year reflections;  the  fodder for long walks and talks with old friends and new. Most likely what takes root will become part of some piece of writing — or new vein of exploration — as the last days of 2014 drift away…

Last night driving home very late from a gathering, I just happened to punch in the AM radio band to chance upon the most fancifully ornate reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  That was one of our Christmas Eve-musts. Always. So, to have it simply drift up coincidentally and escort me — beginning to end —  from the city boundary into my driveway was a special gift, a sort of warm reassurance. A footbridge from past to present, I suppose.

I’ll be posting sporadically over the holidays but wanted to wish all who visit here the very best as we turn the page.

Thanks for visiting and being part of making the year special.

Hill Street Entrance of the Grand Central Market

Hill Street Entrance of the Grand Central Market

Mother Tongue

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ANYONE WHO has known me since childhood remembers summers when my family would slip away, back to New Orleans — my mother’s birthplace and essentially my “other home.” It was family ritual.

This week, as part of a partnership between Zócalo Public Square and The Smithsonian, my essay “New Orleans Is My Second Language,” is part of the “What It Means to Be American“-series exploring identity, journeys and sense of place. I chose language and ritual which were both in many ways the bridge “back home,” not just for my mother, but now I’m realizing for me as well.

My grandfather, Frank Dixon Bowers, III in Jackson Square, New Orleans. Circa 1970s.

My grandfather, Frank Dixon Bowers, III in Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana. Circa 1970s.

top image via Plurale Tantum

Native Language

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

THIS COMING Thursday, I will be doing a short reading at the beautiful little oasis of a spot in Frogtown (Elysian Valley) called Clockshop, as part of a summer series of readings/travelogues and films titled My Atlas.

I will be introducing a pretty incredible though not-often shown film — The Savage Eye shot over several years, in the 50s by Haskell Wexler, Helen Levitt and Jack Couffer and directed by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick — and reading a short piece that was inspired by the film.

Any regular reader of this blog will know this spot has been a place for me to take a deeper look at L.A. — my home — a place that too often slides by our window (if we’re not in gridlock) at 55 mph-plus. In that time we’re suspended on an overpass or creeping ever-so-slowly toward our destination windows up, the city is being remade — over and over and over. What’s it like to grow up in and live place that constantly dramatically shifts? Disorienting? Dislocating? In the past, I’ve written about how important it is to commit your “personal city” to memory because it won’t always be there. Just recently, I finished a piece about how we Angelenos talk about locations as if they are something like a set of nesting dolls — instead of referring to what is there, we refer to what once was.

For all sorts of reasons of late, I’ve found myself wandering even more, through quiet, early-morning L.A. Through emptied-out, in-the-margins L.A. I’m trying to record bits and pieces of that old city — in notebooks, in essays and now in photographs — odd remnants that have eluded “redevelopment,” city blocks that have somehow slipped through the cracks and regulations. Precisely what I’m looking for, I couldn’t tell you. So many of us here are wandering, traveling, looking for something we can’t quite articulate. But often I know it when I stumble upon it — a lonely pillar of someone’s past dream, a faded fragment of a promise scrawled along a wall. Something that tethers us, something that makes the earth feel not like sand. Something that has eluded destruction or disaster — like the flourish of a freehand X on a map: “I was here.”

Pen to Paper

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THIS WEEKEND is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I have friends descending, all eager to take part. However, I have a weekend of writing in front of me, so the next couple days will be about prioritizing and balance. I have been thinking a lot about the working-writer’s life a lot especially after reading Susan Straight’s wonderful essay for the L.A. Times about the perception of what the writer’s life is and the reality of trying to steal time between all else stacked up in front of you.

From her piece:

“I wrote the stories in my first book by hand, in these places: at the counter of the Mobil station where I worked in 1979, between customers, eating beef jerky and stale cashews out of the nut mix no one ever bought from the cloudy glass compartments beneath my notebook; sitting on a huge rock at the beach in Rosarito, Mexico, in 1983 after my husband fell asleep in the tiny hotel where we spent our two-night honeymoon, writing in my notebook; sitting at a card table in married student housing in 1984 in Amherst with the small blue Smith-Corona my mother had given me for high school graduation . . . ”

Back in college, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a writer, I worked in a bookstore. Nightly, after our brisk pre-dinner rush and between cash-register duties, I would write on yellow pads until we closed at 9PM. During the day, I often wrote through my geography or philosophy class lectures (an idea springing up, rolling into something else) or would steal some time in a secret corner library carrel near a window before I met friends for dinner. I too always wrote in longhand. Even years later when I was writing full time for a newspaper, I sometimes scratched out ideas for a story or an essay on the hard cardboard covers of my reporter’s notebook. While I was teaching, I carried an extra slim composition-style book just to set down dialogue or an observation — fragments of things that I hoped might grow into stories — fiction or essays or something in between.

The longhand notes and paragraphs symbolized something separate, a different creative trail, a different purpose.

One of the most valuable writing workshops I ever took wasn’t in graduate school. It was an after-work session with a poet who explained at the outset that you create a “writer’s retreat” when you create the space within your crowded day to write. Only we could do it. Only we could honor that time. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve thought about it ever since. I’ve written in hospitals, in movie theaters before the lights have dimmed, at the mechanic — marooned between places. And yes, even in my car — like Susan Straight.

Her piece was an essential reminder that that “room” is really inside of you. You simply find a way — and space — to write.

You must.

To read the rest of Susan’s essay go here.