On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to a post last week, Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's words, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here in rural Devon.

"Urban Fantasy," which emerged as a sub-genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Robin Hobb), Francesca Lia Block, and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.)

The High Line, NYC, 2012

Charles de Lint's Ottowa (Moonheart) and Newford (Dreams Underfoot), Emma Bull's Minneapolis (War for the Oaks), Megan Lindholm's Seattle (Wizard of the Pigeons), Francesca Lia Block's Los Angeles (Weetzie Bat), Neil Gaiman's London (Neverwhere) -- along with more recent creations such as Delia Sherman's Manhattan (Changeling) and Holly Black's Jersey Shore (Tithe) -- are urban spaces in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line in winter

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 2000); all rights reserved by the author. The photographs were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York; Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London; and Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. For more on the history of the Urban Fantasy genre, see Austin Hackney's survey of the field. For a post on the life and work of Urban Fantasy writer Charles de Lint, go here.

[Editorial changes, 2018: Urban Fantasy novels by Holly Black and Delia Sherman were added to the text above, and the works by Elkin, Laing, and Hackney were added to the reading recommendations.]


Reflections on time

The Hill Garden, Hampstead Heath

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”  - Julian Barnes (from The Sense of an Ending)

The pergola, Hampstead Heath

"In the distance of my years I cover myself with time
Like a blanket which enfolds me with the layers of my life.
What can I tell you except that I have gone
nowhere and everywhere?
What can I tell you except that I have not begun
my journey now that it is through?
All that I ever was and am yet to be
lies within me now this way."

Nancy Wood (from Many Winters: Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos)

The pergola, Hampstead Heath

Photographs: A winter walk through the secret Hill Garden & Pergola, an Arts-&-Crafts gem tucked into the western end of London's Hampstead Heath. The city receeds, mist cloaks the surrounding woodland, and time stands still. 


Ellen, Howard, and Delia in Time Square

"It's the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: 'Good-bye.' ” - Kurt Vonnegut

Howard and I are leaving New York today, with fond farewells to all the friends, colleagues, and family members who have made the last month such a delightful, stimulating, and richly creative time. Thank you all.

Photo above: A stroll through Times Square on our last night in the city, with Howard and our NYC hosts (and dear friends) Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman.

Below:  A candle for me to wish on last night.... And may the wish come true.

Birthday celebration

I'll be back in my Devon office (and back on this blog) on Monday, Dec. 10. Till then, have a very good week, everyone. Be well. And be magical.


The purpose of art

DTbyAshcanSahahi

“Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don't see a different purpose for it now.” - Dorethea Tanning (1910-2012)

Tanning, of course, was one of great Surrealist writers and artists of the 20th century -- and, like Zora Neale Hurston, spent formative years in New York City; she also lived in Arizona and France over the course of her long life. The letter below is from Tanning to her friend and fellow-artist Joseph Cornell. More illustrated letters can be seen on the Smithsonian site. (And for those of you in New York, there's a terrific exhibition of Beatrix Potter's illustrated letters at the Morgan Library right now.)

Dorthea Tanning to Joseph Cornell

 


Years that ask questions...

Zora Neale Hurston

Today, three quotes from the great author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960):

"There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

So very true. The last few years have been the former for me, but the wheel is slowly turning. And for you?

“Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

So very beautiful. Like an Edmund Dulac illustration in words.

"I want a busy life, a just mind, and a timely death."

I've certainly got the first at the moment; I'm working on the second. The third is out of my hands so I'll get to work and let the Mystery be....


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, Maya Beiser, whose gorgeous music Ellen Kushner (my host and writing partner here in NYC) introduced me to some years ago. I've loved it ever since. Raised on a kibbutz in Israel by a French mother and Argentinean father, Beiser studied at the Yale University Music School and now lives in New York.

Above: Beiser's version of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," from her album Provenance.

Below: Beiser performs "Mariel," composed by Osvaldo Golijov.


What we need, what we remember, what we are

Light on the Central Park Reservoir...

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”   - Philip Pullman

...and a Pointillist flotilla of ducks.

"Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit."    - 

Neil Gaiman

 

The Ugly Duckling by Wm Heath Robinson

Images above: Ducks on the Reservoir in Central Park, Manhattan; and "The Ugly Duckling" by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)


Autumn in New York City

Autumn leaves on Riverside Drive, Manhattan.

I'm in New York now, working on a collaborative writing project that will involve much walking and talking and plotting and scheming, and cups of coffee in tiny cafes, and the clatter of keyboards against an '80s pop soundtrack and the drum beat at the heart of Manhattan.

Riverside Park, NYC

Here, as in Devon, I start my days early, with a cup of coffee underneath the trees or at the water's edge in Riverside Park. I miss my faithful canine companion -- but Tilly is where she should be now, wandering our beloved hills back home, while I stalk the Muse down city streets...and will soon return, new stories in hand.

...to the hills of Devon.

"Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."  - E.L. Doctorow


Shinran Shonin 1

“From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educate myself as best I can. But lacking this, in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out. We never sit anything out. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” ― Ray Bradbury

Shinran Shonin 2

The Shinran Shonin statue at the Buddhist temple on Riverside Drive (between W. 105th and 106th), NYC. This remarkable statue survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, was brought to New York in 1955, and stands as  "a testimonial to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.”

The Great God Pan by George Gray BarnardThe Great God Pan by George Grey Barnard, at Columbia University (Broadway & W. 116th)


Spring arrives in New York City

Trees in bloom, Riverside ParkTrees in bloom, Riverside Park

Daffodils Cherry blossoms and daffodils, Riverside Park

Water's edge, Riverside ParkWater's edge, early morning, Riverside Park

West 97th Street, NYCTree and sky on Broadway &  W. 97th

The Bear Cat, NYCThe Bear Cat sculpture by Peter Woytuk on Broadway & W. 67th

West 103rd Street, NYCA canopy of blossoms, Amsterdam & W. 103rd

"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."   - Rainer Maria Rilke

"It's spring fever.  That is what the name of it is.  And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"  - Mark Twain