Friday, April 18, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 7

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Afternoon Keynote Speaker

Ann Hood, author
Books: Somewhere off the Coast of Maine, The Knitting Circle, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, The Red Thread

I could read whenever I wanted to escape the world.  I could write whenever I wanted to understand the world.

Ann Hood has blond hair that frames her face.  She wears round glasses and a burgundy jacket.  When she speaks, her voice is calm and yet full lively inflection.  She draws me in.  I lean forward, losing myself in her witty, funny stories.

As a young woman, Ann had worked as a flight attendant for TWA.  One day, she saw a man sitting in first class, nervously pushing all the buttons like a child.  She learned that he was a writer.  At the time Ann had just got an agent for her first book, Somewhere off the Coast of Maine, and told the man so. 
The man looked her up and down.  "You look to stupid to be a writer."

Fortunately, TWA had trained all their flight attendants on how to deal with rude customers.

"I think what you mean is that you don't expect a flight attendant to be a writer," Ann gently corrected.

"No.  You look too stupid to be a writer."

The audience is already laughing.  But the story doesn't end here.  A few weeks later, Ann was doing a book signing, and who should she see standing in the line but Mr. First Class himself.

"I bet you don't remember me," he said.

"Oh, yes I do."

I'm giggling with karmic delight.  I'm impressed.  Ann speaks in an off-the-cuff way that doesn't come across as stuffy or rehearsed.  But make no mistake.  Her speaking is polished.

Maybe her past has something to do with it.

"I came from an Italian American family who sat around the kitchen table late into the night, drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories. I learned from an early age, that if you wanted to get heard, your story had to be better than everyone else's."

They were not a family of readers, but somehow, at the age of four, Ann managed to get a hold of her brother's school book.  She read it.

"I knew then--though I couldn't express it at the time--that every cell in my body had settled on being a writer."

As she says this, I feel a squirt of--I can't really describe it--kinship, I suppose.  An echo of knowing deep in your soul who you are and what you're meant to do in life.  A feeling of destiny, for lack of a better word.

Though sometimes destiny works in mysterious ways.

Ann tells us of growing up in a small town without a library.  Of her blue-haired "ancient" teacher, Ms. Nolan, who walked the rows of desks, ruler in hand, and inspected the student's hair for lice.  Of reading Little Women during the Pledge of Allegiance and breaking down in sobs when she realized Beth died.

Of living with a crazy grandmother who would rank which grandchild she liked best (with Ann near the bottom) and climb onto the table each Easter to bless them like she was the pope.  Of a living with an outhouse, a coal-burning stove, and chickens running around the yard.

"I can be nostalgic about it now," Ann says. "But at the time, I was embarrassed.  Didn't they know I was the fifth March sister?  I wanted to be one of the Brady Bunch."

It all came out one day when a popular girl invited Ann to her beautiful home.  The girl's grandmother offered Ann cookies.  Young Ann caught a glimpse of the lifestyle she could never have.  When she came home, Ann burst into tears and yelled at her grandmother. "I hate you!"

Soon after she penned what would become the first in a long line "disappearing Grandma" stories.  The settings might differ--one might take place in contemporary life, another in the future, another in caveman times--but they all shared a similar plot: the grandmother disappears and the girl's life immediately becomes better.

"The more I wrote, the more I came to understand why I was writing," Ann tells us.  "It was a breakthrough moment for me.  In my life, whatever happened, I always had these dual comforts.  I could read whenever I wanted to escape the world.  I could write whenever I wanted to understand the world."

The words sink deep into my own marrow.  They are simple, yet profound.  But if reading is simply an escape, does that mean I've spent most of my life running from reality?  And if writing is my own private therapy, am I selfish to want to make a living off it?

While I ponder all this, Ann starts speaking high school and having a spectacularly unhelpful conversation with a guidance councilor about to do with her life.

"I want to be a writer," said Young Ann.

"People don't become writers," the councilor said.

"Then how do we get all these books?"

"Don't be a wise guy."

Fortunately, Ann had a back-up plan.  She wanted to to be an airline stewardess, meet men, see the world, and get that kind of "running with the bulls" experience she thought all writers ought to have. The councilor shot this down, too.

"Smart girls don't become airline stewardesses."

"Then you tell me what to I'm supposed to do," Young Ann said.

"You can be a nurse or a teacher," he said.  "Or you can make your life easier and just get married."

The married women in the audience laugh.

Well, Ann didn't listen and set out to do what she wanted to do.  She became a flight attendant and then a full-time writer.  She got married and had two children: first a boy, then a girl.

It all seemed to encapsulate into this one perfect moment.  Ann came home one spring day, and it was unusually hot, 90 degree weather.  She could smell her husband barbecuing in the back.  Her daughter Grace, the youngest of their two children, ran up with a fistful of chives that had sprouted purple flowers.  Ann looked at her life, and thought, Wow, I like where I've landed.

Ann pauses.  "Grace died the next day."

I suck in my breath.  Everyone else does the same thing, and we make one long, collective gasp.  How could this healthy girl with a fistful of chives die so suddenly?  Ann's explanation does little to help.  Grace had an infection.  They took her to the hospital.  The disease flared, and the little girl died.

Ann and her husband had to cross over a chalk drawing their son made with the words Welcome Home, Grace.

That whole night, Ann held onto the edge of the bed like it was an anchor.  The next morning, she heard the sounds of people going off to work.  She couldn't believe it.  How could the world continue to go on, like everything was normal?

"I went outside.  I picked up the newspaper.  I opened it up and stared at the headline.  And I was shocked.  For the first time, since I was four, I could not read.

"I could not read, because the words did not make sense.  And I could not write, because I did not want to re-create the worst day of my life.  My dual sources of comfort had been taken away from me at the moment I needed them the most."

She kept this a secret from her friends and family.  Deep in mourning, Ann had trouble doing everyday things.  Even a visit to a grocery store would remind her of Grace: she'd see her daughter's favorite cereal, her daughter's favorite snacks.  Her friends and family took care of her during this time.  They fed her and walked her--like a dog, Ann jokes.  I smile, but my heart is heavy with empathy.

One day, her friend told her, "You've got to get out of your head and do something with your hands."  Her friend's first suggestion was to re-upholster furniture.  Ann rejected it.  Her second suggestion was knitting.  For some reason Ann lit on this suggestion.

Unfortunately, the knitting classes had already begun.  Ann felt discouraged. Then, out of the blue, a mysterious woman gave Ann the card of a knitting instructor.  Ann didn't know it at the time, but the woman had a son with cystic fibrosis; she knit to keep from going crazy in the waiting room.  It was Ann's first hint as to the community of knitters, how they used their craft to deal with tragedy and heartbreak.

Ann went to the knitting instructor's house and learned a basic stitch.  She was bad at it, but found the act engrossing.  She practiced for hours, just sitting in her car, stitch after stitch, until the yarn was too tight and she could knit no longer.

"I thought to myself, Wow.  Knitting tells you when your finished."

Of course, the next day, her knitting instructor told her she did it all wrong and began undoing her stitches.  Hours of hours of hard work simply unraveled.  Ann felt as though someone had deleted her writing.  But her instructor said, "Don't be silly.  I'm going to fix it."

"You can fix anything in knitting," Ann tells us.  "That was a profound thought.  It gave me hope that maybe I could heal, after all."

Her experience inspired Ann to write The Knitting Circle, a fictional about a woman who finds healing through knitting and through the support of other knitters with tragedies of their own.

Even though Ann was slowly healing, she still experienced a sense of loss.  One day, she looked at her son, and thought, I cannot have my son thinking life is bad.  I need to show him there's still hope.  So Ann and her husband decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

"In China there's a saying that each one of us is connected to every person we knew in the past, every person we know now, and every person we will know in the future by an invisible red thread.  No matter how tangled or frayed the red thread becomes, it never breaks, it can never be cut--even with death."

There was a twist.  The baby they were to adopt was born on April 18th--the same day Grace died.  Ann panicked.  "I won't be able to celebrate her birthday.  I can't celebrate the day my daughter died."  She thought about taking on China's formidable bureaucracy in order to change the baby's birthday.  But that was silly.  Her husband convinced her it was a way of reminding them that they should enjoy life and move on.

"Fine," Ann snapped. "But don't expect me to bake cupcakes."

The first few years, they celebrated her daughter's birthday on a different day.  After all, a one- or two-year-old doesn't know calendar dates.  But the years passed, and the daughter grew wiser.  On her fifth birthday, she had her first big party.  It was April 18th.

"And on that day," Ann says, "I saw that red thread go all the way back to China, connecting me to another woman who'd lost a daughter--the same little girl that I now loved.  I saw the thread connect her to Grace, to the daughter I lost.

"And on that day, I did bake cupcakes."

Tears prick my eyes.  The audience stands and applauds.

Throughout the whole speech, I've wanted to laugh, I've wanted to cry.  I've experienced the emotions so vividly in my imagination, I almost feel they are my own.  How has she managed to weave the story of her life and the inspiration of her books into one stunning narrative?  I am in awe.

* * *

To Be Continued...

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