Category Archives: America

Who Gets to Be An American?

America’s story depends on where you stand. If you’re standing on the Navajo Nation reservation or maybe somewhere in Flathead, Montana, America’s story is a story about conquest and resilience. If you’re a black American whose ancestors were brought on slave ships, your story might be about survival and resilience. If you identify with those who arrived on different ships—and now on planes—fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, then America’s story is perhaps a story about possibilities and resilience. Nowhere is this story better told than at The Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side.

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Look, I don’t readily gush about New York City. It’s crowded, noisy, and abrasive. I lived in Greenwich Village over 20 years ago, and I’ve been back in this sphere now for almost 14 years. I’ve stood in long lines for a morning bagel (back before I was gluten-free); I know my schmears; I’ve gotten stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel; I sneezed while driving across the George Washington Bridge and hit the car in front of me; I got broadsided by a dump truck on Second Avenue; I’ve had afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria where I rode the elevator with Leah Rabin five years before she died; I got to see Top of the Rock for free because I knew people. I’ve done almost all of New York except see Hamilton because, like most of America, I can’t afford to see Hamilton. Oh, and I eat my pizza folded (is there any other way???).

Now that we’ve established my NYC street cred, let me get back to gushing about 97 Orchard Street, the visionary magnificence of museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson (and that is not hyperbole), and the brilliance of how the Tenement Museum executes this vision.

As expected, visitors are taken through the apartments of families who lived in this complex, which was built in 1863 and closed in 1935 before being rediscovered in 1988. Some of the 325-square-foot apartments are restored in the styles of the time, and you’re walked through a single family’s experience of living there, where they worked, how they ate, and even work-life balance, which wasn’t a term in the late 19th century, but still a problem because so many people, children included, were overworked.

Here’s what’s glorious about what Abram and Jacobson did: they left some of the apartments untouched, as they found them: abandoned, peeling, with handwritten notes scribbled in pencil on the walls. Some of these notes are inventories listing numbers of jackets or dresses since this part of New York was central to the garment trade, sewing the clothes for most American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We see what Abram and Jacobson saw in 1988, which was how the interior of the building was last seen by those who lived there before being kicked out in 1935. They were smart enough to leave things alone, recognizing the impact of decay, how time is really layers. The design of the museum is a restored time capsule interspersed with the real time capsule.

Our guide explained that the walls contain 40 layers of paint and 21 different types of wallpaper, one over the other, each wave of immigrants and families leaving their mark. There are also different layers of flooring cracked and peeling, revealing the tastes of the previous occupants: big, floral patterns, bright turquoises and reds, the working class so eager to mimic the decor uptown. The chipped walls are like the rings of a giant Sequoia tree, each layer an era, a story, a family’s place in history. They won’t let you touch the peeling walls, and I understand why, but I very much wanted to.

Seven thousand people lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. We took the “Hard Times” tour featuring a German family in the 1870s headed by a single mother who somehow got all three of her daughters educated. Our other tour, “Sweat Shops,” focused on a Lithuanian Jewish family who followed the Sabbath despite pressures to work Saturdays. The father was a tailor, just about everyone in the family worked, and over the years, they managed to save up enough to move to Brooklyn, considered the Promised Land back then with its newer construction and green parks before hipsters and artisanal pickle factories took over.

The Tenement Museum couldn’t be more relevant than it is now. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was just getting off the ground when Trump’s white supremacy decided otherwise. His hatred and myopia leave hundreds of thousands terrified about their futures, many of them non-white. Trump’s action was a move to decide who gets to be an American, a question posed by our guide. Sadly, this question isn’t new in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, anyone could show up and try to earn a living, and then over the generations, the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration fluctuated, sometimes open arms, sometimes a door in the face. The federal government officially took an active role in managing immigration beginning in 1891, just in time for the “Great Wave” of 24 million immigrants who arrived between 1900 and 1920, thousands upon thousands of them landing on Ellis Island, a pipeline to lower Manhattan, a pipeline to 97 Orchard Street.

What you see at the Tenement Museum is how immigrants have been the backbone of this country for decade after decade, generation after generation. Who would we be without them? Who would I have been if Anna Woznicka got cold feet about leaving Poland all those years ago when 97 Orchard was hopping? My memories of my great-grandmother are limited, but vivid: a 1950s kitchen with a Formica table and counter tops; above the booth-like seating around the table, a photo of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president who had been long dead by the time I was hanging out in Great-Grandma’s kitchen. Next to JFK was a photo of a very youthful Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s first Polish Pope, who was at his peak then. These two faces were the first faces you always saw upon entering my great-grandmother’s house.

Before our visits, in the car ride over (a blue Oldsmobile station wagon) my mother would always tell us not to eat anything that was offered, concerned we would be getting expired treats, which was highly likely. I don’t know when Anna Woznicka left Poland, but I know she spoke little English. I know she was born in July 1894, sometime arrived to New York before 1915 when my grandfather was born, gave birth to four children in America, lived most of her adult life in Syracuse, New York, and by the time I was old enough to remember her from visits during the 1970s and early 1980s, she was a raisined old lady wearing pastel housecoats that looked like tablecloths. She would shuffle about the house crying and mumbling in Polish. No one ever explained why she cried during our visits. Sometimes she and my grandfather would bicker in what I could only guess was Polish because it certainly wasn’t English, and I was working hard at a young age to try to pick up words where I could. She would disappear into her bedroom down the hall and return with $5 bills, one for me and one for my younger brother. Once, I received a Christmas card in Polish and had no idea how to read it. She died in 1988. I was 15, my parents were newly divorced, and I wasn’t at the funeral. I have no clue what happened to the Christmas card written in Polish.

But Anna Woznicka got to stay, and by 1973 when I was born, there wasn’t any question that I, a third-generation American, a blonde, green-eyed girl with a Polish name who couldn’t pronounce a word of Polish, would get to stay.

So go to the Tenement Museum, and definitely book more than one tour. Look at the peeling paint on the walls. Listen to the stairs creak beneath your feet. Think about the smells that were outside those windows in 1863 or 1901 or 1915—plenty of horse shit and garbage and beer because the neighborhood was predominantly German at the end of the 19th century with countless saloons. Think of who you are and where your family comes from. Think about your neighbors; mine are mostly Korean who speak Korean—one little girl two doors down recently learned English. Think about who became American and why, and then think how America could still be America yet turn people away.

Castanet Sleigh Ride

When it snows out, I play John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a tradition that dates back to 21 years ago today when I returned to my apartment on Bleecker Street, got caught in a blizzard, and watched the city go silent. I owned two CDs back then: John Coltrane and The Black Crowes, and snow in Manhattan felt more Coltrane than Chris Robinson, plus “My Favorite Things” is a 17-minute song, so that’s ample time to sit by a large window and watch the snow fall. More than 20 inches fell on New York City between January 6-8, 1996, still among the best two-plus days I’ve ever enjoyed in Manhattan. I ordered Indian takeout. Outside, I walked Greenwich Village and watched people cross-country ski down Bleecker Street, as if they had been waiting for this moment for years. No one honked their horns because the cars were stuck. People threw snowballs and waved at each other. It was the most laid-back side of New York City I had ever seen.

I am playing Coltrane now, though we woke up to barely an inch of snow. As someone who grew up in the Snow Belt, this is quite unimpressive January weather (so far). During my childhood, winter wasn’t so much a season but a state of mind, one that involved time, preparation and equipment: the extra five or ten minutes to get into a snowsuit and boots; how I had spent all fall stacking wood for our wood-burning stove; the purchasing of rock salt; making sure the shovels could take another round; ensuring the snow-blower still worked; that we hadn’t outgrown our boots yet; that we had cans of Campbells soup somewhere in the cupboard in case we got snowed in and the grocery store was closed, because at the time there was only one store in town (and yes, it was Campbells—I can’t even look at the Warhol version without thinking of how salty that soup is). Snow piled up in feet, not inches. There was a hunker-down mentality to my childhood winters that I’ve always resented, and I’ve spent years distancing myself from them, despite the fun I had sledding down huge hills.

Last Friday, I was in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where it was around 65 degrees, and folks were bundled like the “Big One” was coming. Heavy scarves, long sweaters, hats, boots, coats. I get that Floridians, and Southerners in general, don’t do snow. They hunker down for hurricanes, a shared, but different mentality altogether. One of our waiters, who was originally from Georgia, joked with us how he keeps meaning to drive north to see snow, but when it gets to be around 60 degrees, he chickens out. I thought about this notion—driving a long distance to see snow, and here I was having just driven 1,300 miles to warm up on a beach. A friend of mine who lives in Phoenix drives her kids 170 miles north to Flagstaff to take them sledding. When I was a kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could afford to go to Florida for school breaks (and it was *always* Florida). Intense sunshine, powdery beaches and palm trees were as curious and exotic to me as snow was to this guy.

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So here I was, living out my Florida fantasies over the holiday break—doing exactly what I had always wanted to do as a kid. Originally, I had wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, but the rates were too high and the restrictions too many, so instead I lucked out with this awesome house attached to a private pool in Cape Coral, only a half-hour drive from Sanibel. I loved the Cape Coral neighborhood because it wasn’t travel brochure-Florida—it was Florida-Florida: manatee-shaped mailboxes, plastic flamingos everywhere, dolphins etched into glass doorways, very tanned, white-haired people walking dogs. Florida was my happy lamp last week, so I spent mornings walking around the neighborhood, and once, a young guy heading towards a pickup truck greeted me hello while holding a rifle in each hand. Yep. I had the real deal.

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Sanibel Island didn’t disappoint either. We went to the beach a number of times last week, including a beautiful stroll on Christmas Day. This was my first “warm” Christmas, and I reveled in Florida’s quirky mix of inflated polar bears and palm trees, its plastic candy canes jutting out of sand. We saw egrets trying to wait out the fishermen, and we saw dolphins swim past every time we went to the beach. Sanibel is known for its seashells, and there’s a posted guide displaying different shells and their names, which reminded me of being in the cosmetics aisle reading lipsticks thinking: “Which is more me, Red Hot Lover or Pretty In Pink?” I found an Atlantic Kitten Paw and a Florida Spiky Jewel Box. I only took a few shells home as souvenirs; I saw people carrying buckets of shells on the beach, and the roads in our Cape Coral neighborhood were a mix of asphalt and crushed shell, so perhaps seashells aren’t a limited resource—I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be greedy. I “shelled” because “shelling” on Sanibel is a very active verb, and I walked the edge of the Gulf of Mexico admiring the variety of shells. The waves off Sanibel weren’t ideal for boogie-boarding, so Mike dragged our kid across the water the way he used to pull her on her sled across snow.

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Throughout the week, the Sunshine State lived up to its name; it was in the 80s, abundantly bright out and warm enough to use our private pool almost all hours of the day. Except for last Friday, the day we went to Ybor City because I wanted to take my half-Spaniard husband to Columbia Restaurant, a Florida institution I had visited the previous year. This time, Columbia felt far more touristy than I had remembered. Maybe this was because of the holidays? We had reservations for dinner and flamenco dancing. At the table next to us, an older gentleman loudly asked his companion if it was “Flamingo or Flah-min-coh” dancing, and the companion had to correct him: “It’s ‘flah-mehn-co, not flamingo like the bird.” I kid you not—that was said out loud—very out loud—at the table next to me, and I was amused and slightly nervous because I knew then we were in for something marketed to tourists. Sure enough, the lights dim, the dancers come out dressed in bright gowns and wearing bright silk flowers in their hair, and they start dancing to “Sleigh Ride” blasted from an aging soundtrack system, keeping the rhythm of “Sleigh Ride” with their castanets. I burst out laughing, and then did all I could to maintain composure during the performance. My husband, whose father was born in Madrid and apparently didn’t speak any English, look horrified, which made me laugh even harder. We honeymooned in Spain, and had seen gorgeous flamenco dancing when we lived in Washington, D.C., and a troupe from Spain passed through. I had also recently seen beautiful flamenco dancing while in Havana in May. None of these past experiences involved a soundtrack. Flamenco dancing is a few women in dresses that crest and fall like ocean waves, castanets strapped to dancers’ fingers, and usually one guy dancing with them, another guy playing a box or a chair or some makeshift drum, and always—always a dude furiously strumming a guitar like it’s his last day.

Our daughter, who had never seen live flamenco dancing, looked confused and kept asking why I was trying to stifle my laughter. Repeating “Mom, what’s so funny??” while dancers are on stage trying to do their job is as awkward as it sounds. I had brought my family to a tourist trap. Playing castanets to a Muzak version of “Sleigh Ride” was meant for guys in the audience who can’t pronounce “flamenco.” The dancers were quite good, and the whole thing would’ve been better if they shut off the cheesy soundtrack, which, they eventually did. A skinny guy in a red shirt and tight black pants came on stage and saved the day with his singing and dancing, and my husband’s posture softened. A few minutes of something authentic-ish.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It just added to the weirdness that is Florida. And, it humbled me. I can take my family down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, past its bars, the hookah lounges, the tattoo parlors, I can buy a cloche hat from La France, crave a Cubano sandwich I can’t eat because it’s not gluten-free, and convince myself I’m having a cool, authentic experience only to spend that same evening sitting before a stage of flamenco dancers working their assess off to “Sleigh Ride.” It was the perfect Friday night in Florida. You should try it sometime.

Crossing Borders

During a morning walk in suburban Florida this week, I passed this pile of discarded plastic flamingos on a lawn that looked cared for but not really used, and I couldn’t help but think about the American dream as we approach the inauguration of the next president. America is going through some funky, disturbing times. There is a sense of mourning among many, and yet, also around the corner from my rented house here in Cape Coral, Florida, a Trump/Pence sign, so not everyone is mourning. Also on my walk, a young guy greeting me “good morning” while holding a rifle in each hand, manatee-shaped mailboxes, and upright pink plastic flamingos adorning lawns filled with plastic candy canes and inflatable polar bears.

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Honestly, as I hang out in Florida, I’m in shock that I’m still in the same country that is also home to Portland, Oregon, and to Chicago and to Shamrock, Texas (had a layover there back in 1998), and to New York City, my backyard for the last 13 years. The fact we’re still a union at all answering to the same red, white and blue flag stuns me, and we should consider this progress even though there’s so much vitriol and bipolarity and -isms right now. We are 50 *very* different states. I celebrated my first birthday in Texas; I grew up in upstate New York; I lived in Seattle, then moved to Washington, D.C. (not a state, I know). I got married in Vermont. I have driven the width of the Contiguous 48 three times. I have visited 30-plus of America’s diverse states—haven’t yet visited Alaska or Hawaii—and each state functions as their own little universe. I lived in New Hampshire for six months about 20 years ago. New Hampshire, despite a shared geography with Vermont, has a completely different mindset from the Green Mountain State; it’s like comparing New Mexico with Arizona, or North Carolina to South Carolina, two states that still cannot agree on the proper way to serve barbecue. Despite shared borders, these are not apple-to-apple comparisons by any stretch. Why is that? Why do things change so much when you cross borders drawn by dead white guys?

It’s easy to happily function inside your bubble, mingle among like-minded people, never go beyond your borders, but I like going to other people’s bubbles, even if we disagree on who should lead America or the Second Amendment or the nutritional value of almond milk. America is just that, a string of bubbles, and communities feel increasingly less inclined to Venn-diagram with one another. Someone looked surprised when I mentioned I wasn’t going to unfriend Trump voters. I even had brunch a few weeks ago with a staunch Republican, who is a dear friend of mine. Our bubbles overlapped over eggs and Bellinis.

I’ve been fascinated by regionalism and differences long before Trump shocked millions of us by winning the electoral vote. To answer my own query, I started reading Lewis and Clark’s journal entries earlier this year, trying to picture what America looked like before being claimed, parceled and mapped out, before Texas was briefly its own Republic, before Abraham Lincoln had to fight to keep the country from ripping itself apart, before Los Angeles turned into Tinsel Town, before Wal-Mart took over the landscape, before “coastal elitism” became a term. Lewis spends several—and I do mean several—pages lamenting about the morning fog slowing things down, perhaps not thinking that two centuries later, a 40-something suburban mom who hates America’s ubiquitous malls and themed parks would be scanning his words for clues. Entries are spelled out phonetically, so it’s not smooth, intuitive reading; his meditations about what America used to be require stepping away from the puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. And I’m still not sure on the answers, on when all these political, social and cultural tectonic shifts began, or where they’re going, and maybe these changes are harder to gauge because these movements are still moving.

Had America not been so goddamn big, had Sacagawea said to Lewis and Clark: “Find your own way! Jean Baptiste needs his nap!” or had Napoleon not needed to sell off “Louisiana,” which constitutes most of middle America, to fund his warmongering, what would America look like now? Who would be assuming power in four weeks? Where would the red and blue states be? Is there a singular American culture anymore or are there many American cultures? Those who drink their coffee with soy-free almond milk versus those who prefer whole milk from cows that grazed on pesticide-treated grass, and everyone else in between? Who is America today?

These “what if’s” are folly, as all “what if’s” are. Regionalisms will always prevail, no matter how much the Internet attempts to globalize us. As I write this, I am playing George Michael’s 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” a thoughtful, moody album about working out our differences, finding some common ground, and breaking free from the shoulds, coulds, and woulds. I keep replaying “Cowboys and Angels” a wispy, jazzy tune that feels like clouds floating by—perfect for a lazy day in Gulf Coast Florida. The day after tomorrow, I will be in a car with my husband and tween, driving about 800-plus miles back north, dreading the Northeast’s go-go-go attitude, its cold and darkness, missing clouds and sunshine and plastic flamingos and swimming pools surrounded by chintzy Christmas decor. All these things are closer than I realize, they appear not so far when I look at a map, yet when I am back in suburban New York City in just a few days, these things might as well be on the moon. We will cross seven states to return to New Jersey, a state that I thought would only be a pit stop, that after 13 years of keeping a residence there, still doesn’t feel like home. And as I pass through each state, I’ll be wondering who America is becoming, where are we going? And will we all get there together?

Mai Tais With the Sun

Tomorrow is the start of October, and usually I love this month. It’s glorious. The changing leaves. The variations in temperatures. The sky is a different kind of blue. Autumn, and October in particular, is pretty, though I’m not a fan of everything suddenly becoming flavored with pumpkin spice (that starts on September 1 for some reason, when the American Northeast decides everything should smell and taste like pie).

This autumn, the changing skies feel more ominous to me. Today was a very gray, gloomy day in the greater New York City area. Everyone wore black and carried black umbrellas. It felt like a funeral for summer. Today reminded me of my three years living in Seattle. In Seattle, I would become very depressed starting every November, I’d stay balled up until about April, and then between May and October I felt fine. I couldn’t figure out why. Then we moved to Washington, D.C., where winter seems to last seven weeks, crocuses pop up in late February, it’s generally sunnier, and suddenly I felt okay.

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I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and last winter was my first winter managing things without medication. Folks, it’s hard. You feel dysfunctional for about four consecutive months, that’s one-third of the year where you don’t feel like yourself. It’s only September 30, and today I had to use my light box for over an hour. Just a month ago, I was on a beach in Los Angeles trying not to get skin cancer.

I do all the things they tell people with SAD to do: I sit in front of my light box, which I named Helios. I do yoga, I dance, I bike if the roads are dry, I lift weights, I don’t hide in the house all day, I meditate, I meet up with people for lunch/dinner/drinks. I go outside. Last January, I remember sitting on my front step in 25-degree cold sipping hot coffee just because the sun was everywhere that day. The lack of sunlight is more than just a mood thing for me; ongoing darkness sends my thyroid into overdrive, which sends my body into a state of stress, which causes my heart to sometimes skip a beat—usually while I’m trying to fall asleep—which sucks because winter makes my insomnia worse. No pun intended, but there’s a snowball effect, with the physical following the mental. Darkness makes me anxious.

I was born in the Snow Belt. I grew up in a house where everyone yelled, where fallen apples or too much snow covered the ground most of the year. I lived in upstate New York until I was 22 years old. Summers were hot and short; winters were long and bitter. I believe my restlessness and need for travel began there in my childhood home, two miles from that moody Lake Ontario shoreline; I can’t recall a time growing up when I didn’t want to be somewhere else. And now, on this overcast day, as I watch neighbors’ Halloween decorations go up, as I overhear people revel in that “crisp fall air” vibe, I feel incredible isolation, for all I want to do is head to Mexico before Trump builds that wall, eat tacos, read on the beach all day, and dance at the clubs all night. This year, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Bahamas and Cuba, two late-spring trips within just a few weeks of each other. Let’s just say the Caribbean (and Mexico) is medicinal.

Last October, I went on a press trip to Mexico and noticed a change in my body chemistry while there. The trip was annoying, but my body felt calm. Sunshine flooded me. I came home four days later, daylight savings kicked in, which meant it was now dark by 4:30 p.m., and once again, I was huddled on the sofa trying not to think about death.

When I say sunshine and palm trees give me the feels, I mean it—literally. We are looking to move to Los Angeles, but that won’t happen until 2018, so I still need to cope with the Northeast for another year and a half. I would probably do very well with a Colorado winter—that state gets so much sunshine year-round it’s like someone smiling at you all the time. As I keep telling people, it’s not the snow or the cold that bothers me—I love to ski! It’s the lack of sunlight, the cloud cover, even the lack of color in the sky. The heaviness of this kind of weather sends my serotonin tanking. Today, I had practically every light on in this house just to counter the darkness outside, and we’re less than two weeks into autumn.

This fall and winter, I am armed with more strategies, now that I have a sense of what to expect off-meds. We are going to Florida in December. I am visiting a friend in Arizona in February. I am chopping up winter into more bite-sized chunks, unlike last year where I thought stubbornness and focus would help me slog through the entire season. Instead, I huddled at home. Nature showed me who’s boss—again. This time, I plan to soak up whatever sunlight I can wherever I can, and store it like a camel. I’m even getting on a plane to seek out sunshine, and I hate flying, but I figure a trip somewhere will take me out of the spiral that is SAD. And then in mid-March, we set the clocks forward and daylight will start to stretch into 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. That’s when I feel the tension subside, negative narratives melting with the snow. Longer days mean more possibilities. The sun signals psychological relief, even optimism. And then we get to June when the sun lingers until 8 p.m. or so, like some dinner date where the conversation is going so well that you lose track of time, and you say “Yes! You’re still here! Let’s order Mai Tais!”

Dreaming of Italy

Outside, the Tyrrhenian Sea had disappeared into darkness. I could see this from my seat at the dinner table; one side of the restaurant was all windows looking out, but at the moment, there wasn’t anything to see except specks of light coming from neighbors’ windows. Nightfall in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is at all not like nightfall in suburban New York City—it’s a true, deep, inky dark, not that hazy, pink dark that clouds Manhattan and all its neighbors from sundown til sunrise, giving you the false sense the sun never slipped away at all, it simply changed colors. We were enveloped by the blackness curling around the coastline while inside the restaurant, hundreds of candles glowed, what felt like the safest place to be on Earth that night. At the table next to me, a woman from Texas, a writer who now owns an artisanal wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles, stood up, and in her soft Southern drawl, delivered an impromptu buzzed speech about the importance of writing, the commitment to the process. She then raised her glass and said loudly and passionately “Fuck money!”

Cheers and applause followed. She was speaking to a restaurant filled with writers, some published, some not, some quite notable, and others who were trying to carve a name for themselves, like myself. And it was easy then, just two weeks ago today, to lift my glass and chirp “Fuck money!” in response. I was surrounded by supportive peers at a five-star hotel for a writers’ conference. I was someplace ancient and magical. I had redeemed frequent flyer miles to get there, and had flown business class for the first time in my life just to make the claustrophobia I feel on planes more tolerable. I couldn’t really afford the event, but I was there. “It’s an investment in your writing,” my husband said in the months leading up to the conference, and there I was saying “Fuck money!”

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Most writers I know don’t earn much. The US Department of Labor says that in 2014, writers averaged about $58,000 per year. I’ve been on both sides of that figure in the last few years. My husband just finished edits on his fourth book, and tells anyone who asks—and it’s been asked several times—that he will never leave his day job as a writer for a mutual fund company. He loves what he does, and the company he does it for, and his job has changed our lives in ways we never thought manageable, allowing me to leave my office gig four years ago and return to full-time freelance writing and, more importantly, return to creative writing, something I hadn’t touched since college.

Three days after that candlelit toast, I was happy to be back home after 12 days in Europe, though, truthfully, I would’ve much preferred my family to fly out to Italy to be with me. I have no love for New York City. It’s the financial capital of America, and this toiling for coin dominates life here. In my leafy, snobby suburb, it is assumed everyone has a ton of money. I did not grow up with middle class comforts, yet years of working hard, paying off debt, and job promotions led us to a town of bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, human resource managers, engineers, and one neighbor who is a senior administrator for the United Nations. It’s a town of 60-hour work weeks and big paychecks. It is not a town where freelance writers live. But we were able to afford a small, aging house here because it offered the best education for our daughter, and an opportunity to build equity quickly, for houses in this town sell well. At home, busy not fitting in, I try to think of living here like I think of the conference in Positano or my writing in general, an investment. And investments are about time.

Meanwhile bills roll in, and the stress of not getting paid kicked in as soon as the jet lag wore off. I spent my first week home following up with clients, a daily constitution for most freelance writers I know. When I wasn’t doing that, I worried, which I’m very good at. There are often financial dry spells when working as a freelance writer, but it was difficult to have it follow such a luxurious week. Just days earlier, I sat inside a dreamy hotel sipping luscious red wine, nibbling on tuna carpaccio and talking with a Canadian writer about the restaurants down by the beach. Difficult clients, ignored emails, piling bills, and the snobbery of an overpriced, award-winning school district community were all four-thousand miles away.

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Perspective was easier in Positano, not because of five-star accommodations, but because of Positano itself, with its Easter-egg colored houses clinging to a cliff, its lemon trees in between homes, twisting toward the sun, everything appearing so old and still and lovely. Fewer than five-thousand residents live there. I saw some of their undergarments drying. Laundry lines crisscrossed several households; just outside my fancy hotel, someone hung men’s briefs and a large bra from a clothesline strung across a front balcony.

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The Amalfi Coast seduces. I get it now. This was my second trip to Italy (the first one being in March 1996), but my first trip going beyond Italy’s cities and to the smaller places. Our hotel, Le Sirenuse, is an exceptional place that deserves all the praise that’s ever been said or printed about it. And it has a magnificent outdoor swimming pool. On the Saturday morning I had to check out, I finally had a chance to try the pool. It had been a chilly, wet week in Positano, the sun often coming out when I had to be inside for a writer’s workshop. But a few hours before check out, the sun was strong; morning felt like early afternoon. I changed into my bathing suit and slipped into the pool. Many of my colleagues were still enjoying breakfast, and while they finished their eggs and cappuccinos, I had what now ranks as the best swim in my life.

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As a hotel pool junkie, this is a notable claim. I have swum in many fine hotel pools around the world; I have gone into debt to travel and experience these places just like I went into debt to travel and experience Positano. The conference and the people and the learning were unparalleled. I hope to attend again. But that swim—the warm water, the smell of the beach just a few steep staircases away, the sounds of the cliff waking up and beginning another weekend. Wow. Just wow. That’s the best I can come up with because you really had to be there. What else can I say other than I had the pool to myself for about 20 minutes, that gliding across the water, I realized Italy was letting me in on its secrets, and that was when I knew I had been completely seduced. I no longer felt guilty about the expense of being there. I wanted to swim until my skin pruned. I wanted to tell the taxi driver taking me to the train station that I had changed my mind.

Positano will balloon with tourists this summer. I was grateful to enjoy the region in early spring, when things are quieter and slower. Many shops were still closed for the winter; a gelateria across the street opened for the season during my week there. Other shops began to unlock its doors and hang their shingles. Poverty used to plague this area during the early twentieth century, and by mid-century, Steinbeck and movie stars were showing up. Being a charming fishing village wasn’t enough anymore. Positano depends on tourism, it needs travelers to be swept away by its beauty, and to keep coming back.

Steinbeck is right: “it’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I thought I arrived with all my practicality in check, and since leaving two weeks ago, I feel haunted by the place. I think about how vertical Positano is, how you ascend or descend to see things. Everything is up or down. You climb stairs carved into homes or the cliff itself or make your way along exceptionally narrow stone roads you share with Vespas zipping by, and if the stairs and roads have been washed by the day’s rain, you pray there’s a railing nearby to steady you. Public buses use these same roads, which blew my mind as I watched drivers handle hairpin turns with familiarity, not slowing down when I thought they should, but they knew Positano’s curves. I did not.

I hope to earn enough money to go back. Writing has been cheapened. Freelance gigs are harder to come by. Book advances are shrinking. Everyone jokes how there’s no money in publishing. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, health care and education have all gone exponentially up while salaries have flattened, editorial salaries being among some of the worst. It’s hard to make things work in the United States. In this election year, I hear many people say the American dream is dead. I want to say “Fuck money!” that I write for the love of language, that I write for the same reasons Steinbeck wrote, that I am compelled by passion, not income or status, which I’ve never really had anyway. And when I was in Positano, it was easier for those things to feel true. Now back in suburban New York, I fret constantly about money. I feel defined by my lack of it. New York is so expensive, and even robust paychecks don’t feel like enough. No one here hangs their laundry outside to dry. Landscapers are always around tidying up people’s gardens and yards. We own one car where most driveways have at least two, sometimes three, and often newer models. What your kid wears and where your kid goes to summer camp reflects how well you are doing. Here in my 1926 Colonial, around the corner from some newly-constructed McMansions, I am writing in my pajamas—as freelance writers do—and I’d like to lift my coffee cup and loudly proclaim “Fuck money!” but the silence that would follow would overwhelm me.