Thursday, September 16, 2021

Light and Space for Your American Dream

By Norma Hopcraft

Writers are artists of words, images, ideas, moods.

Painters are artists of images and feeling.

Musicians are artists of notes and feeling.

Architects are artists of light and space and feeling.

The best architects, like the other artists, help us to feel affirmed in our humanity.

I’m crazy about historic commercial architecture, which you’ll find plenty of in Providence, RI (pics below). I like it because these buildings were built to be, and still are, places where people sit in light and space, which architects skillfully divided, and work to make their dreams come true.

Providence itself is a city of light, space, and air. It's rich in historic commercial architecture and water views. It’s on huge Narragansett Bay, and the Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers flow through it. There’s always a breeze.

A sculpture along the Providence River

A fragment of the sculpture

Let me digress quickly to Rochester, NY, where I live now in an apartment full of light, air, and nicely proportioned space. It’s in a 100-year-old building, so I dub it historic. 

There’s always a breeze in this city, too, so near a humungous lake—Ontario. So when I open my south- and east-facing windows, a breeze barrels through, so much so that my little living space feels fresh, like standing on the deck of a boat. I like that. I grew up on a small sailboat, so the breeze ignites memories. As much as weather permits, my windows are open. It's mid-October and they're still open, even in Rochester.

This is where I’m now pursuing my writerly American dreams, after a difficult four years in Brooklyn. You would think, “New York City: a creative person’s paradise,” but in the immense city, with teeming millions of strangers full of near-maniacal energy, I got very disconnected, very lonely, no matter how many friends I called.

Now, I’m near family, making new friends, and working on my memoir (unfortunately, I have a memoir-worthy life). I’m also fiddling with a novel set in – no, not Rochester, but Brooklyn. It's about a theater set designer, a person flourishing in NYC, though struggling with directors and actors and costume designers in the theater world. 

Recently I had an artistic breakthrough in my writing in Rochester that I’d like to offer you, because it will probably help you. To do so, I’ll tell a story of failure—mine.

For most of my writing career, I’ve sent pieces to literary magazine editors that I revised, rehashed, and refined to within an inch of the piece’s life. After 25 years of rejection slips (Stephen King and his spike filled with rejections have nothing on me), I stopped submitting work to create time to self-publish three novels. They’ve gotten good reviews but they haven’t broken through. A crushing of my American Dream of financial success from my books.

Recently I saw a segment on the PBS Newshour about black women trying to break through in the country music world. White female singers have long complained that they get much less airtime than white male musicians. Can you imagine how much harder it is for a black woman, especially in a Southern-rooted genre?

The reporter interviewed several black female artists. One of them said a life-changing thing for me. Brittney Spencer happens to be breaking through quite well, and she said: 

“I no longer ask if it’s good enough, I ask if it’s me enough.”

So I’m no longer asking is this novel/memoir/poem/blog post “good enough”, but is it “me” enough? Have I infused it with the wry humor that I love to read myself? Does this piece express the emotional truth I experienced in that situation? 

It gives me light and space to let a piece breathe. A beautiful breeze off Lake Ontario that was born in the Canadian wilderness can now pour through the windows. Maybe it will mean acceptance from those meanies, the literary editors.

I don’t know what wry humor would look like in architecture, but I do know whimsy, and you’ll find it amongst the pics of Providence below.

If and when you begin travelling again, consider Providence as a destination for creative inspiration. The historic commercial architecture will lift your spirits.

Plus Providence is a foodie town, with Johnson & Wales culinary school and tons of restaurants and cafes. Rhode Island ocean beaches are only ½-hour away in Newport, and you can tour the mansions of incredibly wealth Americans, if you’re into that sort of thing (i.e., seeing how other people’s American Dream came fabulously true.) You must guarantee me that you won’t compare and despair, an activity that derails me often.  

On top of all those goodies in Providence, you can take a boat ride—in a gondola, no less! 

Providence light and space, in the form of architecture, gondolas, and bridges, are shown to you below. How about you? Does Brittney Spencer’s words help you in art or life? Comment below!

In Search of the American Dream
I find it interesting that a fragment of something can be more interesting than the whole.

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A former power plant partially turned into condos.

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Dinosaur teeth?

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This sculpture is near the Rhode Island School of Design.  The designer may have graduated from there.

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More river views toward downtown.

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The river was busy with boat traffic.

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The gondolier wasn't singing but giving a spoken guided tour.

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This is the architecture I love -- detailed, gracious, interesting.

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One project was halted after the historic facade was saved (on the opposite side) and the wall propped up. Then the mural painters got to work.

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Another angle.

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More historic commercial architecture that brings distinction to the downtown.

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Look at the details around the windows -- each floor is different!

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A mural. Just cuz.

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Looking up in an indoor shopping arcade.

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Light and space in the arcade.

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The interior of a fancy restaurant. I felt like I was in Paris!

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The details in this facade -- can anybody design and build something like this any more?

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The entrance is catty-corner under the arches.

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a very big, life-like mural.

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Whimsy in the downtown.

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Beautiful wood carving as well as brickwork.

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Another gorgeous facade.

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I'm loving the windows.

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Here's an example of terrific stonework.

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A two-master, with raked masts, after getting through the drawbridge.

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Raked masts are tilted toward the stern just slightly.  How about you? Been to Providence? Do you enjoy historic commercial architecture? Relishing light and space these days? Comment below!

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Escape to Walden Pond

In Search of My New American Writing Dream

By Norma Hopcraft

In a pre-COVID escape from New York City, a tough place to live because of the non-stop noise, crowding, lines of people for every service, subways, dirt, asphalt, concrete, steel, exhaust fumes, millions upon millions of strangers rushing past me, I took Amtrak from NYC to Providence, RI in 2019 to visit my brother. We planned a trip to Walden Pond.

To get ready for this trip, I read Walden, an American classic by Henry David Thoreau. I read about the fish, the loon, the war between ant colonies, the lake, while standing on the Q train, swaying as it pounded through the tunnels from my apartment in Brooklyn to my job in Manhattan. 

The contrast between his simple, quiet, solitary life in the woods and mine, hurtling at high speed in a noisy steel tube, crushed between strangers, could not have been more stark.

Walden is fantastic nature writing. And philosophy. It challenges Americans today to consume less and live more simply.

Thoreau was a bit of an oddball, it seems--which you might expect of someone who chose to live in the woods and eat mostly beans he farmed himself.  He did go into nearby Concord nearly daily, apparently, so he did do plenty of socializing.

But it was a little off beat. Here are the things he valued most when socializing: "I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. ...I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality. There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on him."

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Thoreau lived on Walden Pond in a house he built himself, approximately 8 feet x 10 feet.  When I stepped into the replica (his actual cabin no longer exists), there was only space for a narrow cot, a fireplace, and a small table. I think he had two chairs, because he did get visitors.

Walden is so worthwhile, and full of quirky observations like this one, in which he opines that the grand houses his neighbors lived in in Concord were similar to a forest creature's home, in that "It's basically a porch leading to a burrow."

Cool, huh?

He had more cool writing.

About spring:

"The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame."

About truth:

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."

About being fully alive:

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

Other famous quotes:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time."

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be."

“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

I find these last three particularly encouraging because I do end up alone so much that I have to suspect that I engineer my life that way, just as Thoreau did. So I'm in good company.

And I built castles in the air -- the castle of a comfortable amount in my retirement account thanks to the success of my books. Well, at least I have three books out in the world.  I also have a memoir, a book of essays, and a new novel (set in Brooklyn, where I lived for four years) all well on their way to completion. I was ambitious, and worked hard, and did not make 100% of my dream come true. But six books written (Lord willing)? Not bad for a castle in the air.

My dream of comfortable retirement thanks to my writing had to die (yes, it was keen grieving for months over that one), but my new dream still has to do with writing. Like the quote from Thoreau above, I want my writing to reveal the truth. Beautifully.

The third quote means a lot to me because I've adored books and reading from the moment the little black squiggles on a page resolved themselves in my mind as, "See Sally run," and my imagination saw Sally running--wow! What a moment! I decided then I wanted to be a writer and return the gift I'd just been given, to create great pictures and stories in readers' minds. So I'm glad to see a kindred spirit in Thoreau, with his vast respect for books as treasures.

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Walden is now a state park, and people swim in the lake and sit on manmade beaches.

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The path leading to the site of Thoreau's cabin (which no longer exists, but there are stone markers).

These are the markers on the site of his cabin, where he wrote the greater part of his world classic, "On Walden Pond." He lived in it for two years, two months and two days. This photo was taken by J. WALTER GREEN / AP

Walden is a popular spot. Thoreau used to have it all to himself, except for an occasional hunter, fisherman, or visitor to his cabin.

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The water of the lake all comes from underground springs, so the water is very clear. There is no stream feeding the pond or exiting it.

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A replica of his house, and a statue of Thoreau.

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Me, asking a deep question about consumption, non-conformity, and the meaning of life.

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Me outside the replica of Thoreau's cabin, so you can see the scale of it.

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The Atlantic Magazine's article about him says, "Mr. Thoreau dedicated his genius with such entire love to the fields, hills, and waters of his native town, that he made them known and interesting to all reading Americans, and to people over the sea."

He left a huge contribution to the world in his writing. When he died, the famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said of him: "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost." How about you? Have you read Walden? Want to go there? Want to simplify? Comment below!

Saturday, March 6, 2021

American Dream: A Special Place You Return To

Fire Island Restores My Soul

By Norma Hopcraft

"Yoga weekends--I'll never manage another one." Alison, the manager of my hiking club's cabin on Fire Island, dusted her hands together.

"Why's that?" I asked.

I pause the story there to tell you a little about Fire Island. With this pandemic affecting our lives drastically for a year now, many of us have a pent-up desire to get out of the house and see new places -- or return to old favorites. 

For me, that's Fire Island. It's basically a 30-mile-long sandbar that runs parallel to the southern coast of Long Island, New York. The Atlantic breakers arrive there unblocked for thousands of miles and pound the sand with a roar that delights my ears.

The Traveling Writer In Search of the American Dream
Water horses, with manes flying behind them in the wind, course onto the beach at Fire Island.

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It can be a pricey place to visit, but my hiking club has a cabin there, an inexpensive way to stay.

The fun thing about my hiking club cabin is that you never know who you're going to meet. One summer, on one of my four trips to Fire Island that season, I attended a yoga weekend at the cabin. I chatted with the manager, Alison. Managers work hard over the weekend, feeding everyone and keeping the place organized. But they do get to stay on Fire Island for free.

Alison dusted the corn meal clinging to her hands. She was working on dinner.

"Yoga weekends--I'll never manage another one."

"Why's that?"

"This woman came in the kitchen this morning while I was making fruit salad for the cabin for breakfast. I had just finished slicing a banana and folding it into all the other fruit. She saw me throw the peel away and said, "Oh! I can't mix fruit with banana. It's not good for my system."

"So I picked all the banana slices out and put whole bananas on a plate, to be served next to the fruit salad."


"And I saw the woman put fruit salad in a bowl. She grabbed a banana. A little while later her fruit bowl was empty and she was eating a banana! Sheesh! She's a little bananas to make me do all that extra work."

Even if some people stay at the cabin who are a little bananas, I still love it and go there as often as I can.

I've been returning to the cabin for 10 or 12 years, but it was closed all last year. I missed it terribly. It's a place that feeds my soul with wildness, with natural beauty, with huge expanses of sky, sand, and sea. It feeds my eyes after being among the brick, concrete, asphalt, and razor wire of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I go there to rest from the brutal noise of the city. I go to journal about my writing, to hone my craft. I go to rejuvenate and get in touch with my inner creative springs again.

Won't you please tell me a favorite place that you'd like to return to? And why? Comment below!

I know that some people aren't crazy about the beach and sand. But to me, wet sand clinging to my feet is just part of being in a panoramic seascape: sun, surf, sand. The glitter of sun on the water, the ability to see the entire expanse of sky -- I love it! To be in the vast expanse of beach and sky has been essential to me all my life. I hope you enjoy these scenes from Fire Island!

You get to Fire Island by ferry. 

My friend Jane loves Fire Island too. This is called un Sunken Forest because it's located between the tops of two sand dunes.

A view of the Great South Bay, and beyond it the southern edge of Long Island, from the Sunken Forest.

This is the ocean side of Fire Island, at twilight. I love to walk a mile to the next town and its restaurants, with my feet caressed by the surf.

A sunset, looking over the Great South Bay.

Traveling Writer In Search of the American Dream

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Traveling Writer In Search of the American Dream
The Fire Island Lighthouse, seen from the ferry.

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Houses on the bay side of Fire Island.

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I always sit on the top level of the ferry. Except in rain.

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On another trip, a different day, the sky and water appeared different.

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This was a silvery, coppery, bronze day.

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Another day and another mood for the Fire Island Lighthouse.

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My author pic was taken on Fire Island. By my friend Jane!

There's an ice cream shop in Ocean Beach. This man is feeding his dog ice cream with his spoon! My sister Chris captured that photo and also these pictures of surfers on the day after a big storm:

Traveling Writer "In Search of the American Dream"

Traveling Writer "In Search of the American Dream"

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I took this one, on a quieter day. How about you? What favorite, spiritually renewing place do you return to? Comment below!