Delight

Does the tree

feel dismay

about her scars?

Or the places where

a bug burrowed,

a bird made its nest?

Does the tree

wish to hide her bark

where it is weathered,

stained, and rough?

Does the tree

feel ashamed

of her asymmetry?

No. The tree

delights

in her strength,

in the way she grows hard

as she ages.

She holds spaces

to share

to feed

to shelter.

 

 

Just as the sapling,

uncertain as a fawn,

delights

in her trembling beginning.

And the seed,

full to bursting of promise,

delights

in her prelude

of cool, cool earth.

 

The tree

delights

in herself

until

she

falls.

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Commitments

I never knew that a political election could leave me feeling bereft, as if someone precious to me had died. Over the past several days, the loss has washed over me many times, and I feel devastated each time. What died last Tuesday was hope. I, and many others, thought our country was on the cusp of something beautiful.

This wound is a deep and hard for me to talk about. Many people have already articulated this shared pain and disappointment. I won’t talk more about that.

Here’s what I want to talk about: how to stay positive and move on, how to learn from this, and how to fight harder for the great potential of this diverse country.

To that end, I’m making some commitments.

I commit to doing what I can to protect the vulnerable. I have never been more aware of my own privilege. My race, class, and sexual orientation shield me from the President-elect’s hateful and dangerous proposals. Now is the time for those of us buffered by privilege to lift up, listen to, and stand with our fellow citizens, especially immigrant, minority, gay, and transgender communities. I will make sure that “stronger together” is more than a campaign slogan in my life. Compassion and optimism did not end on November 8th. We need them now more than ever.

I commit to full participation in the democratic process. Hillary’s campaign for the White House was my first foray into activism and political volunteerism. Perhaps that’s part of why this defeat is such a crushing blow, because being involved made me more invested. We should all be so invested. Democracy only represents us when we speak up. I’ve always been a voter. I’ll do more to forward the causes that matter to me. More donations, more phone calls, more talking, more listening.

I commit to loving our world and the people in it. We live in the same enormous, fragile, amazing universe we did last Monday. We are the same bright souls we were last Tuesday morning. Let’s look up from our phones and look each other in the eyes. Let’s smile at each other. Let’s hold hands. Let’s make love and make art.

We thought this country was on the cusp of something beautiful. And we can still make it so.

Now we know that there are more hurdles on this path than we thought. The fight will be harder than we thought. But we continue.

Where we are broken, there are the opportunities to knit together and be stronger.

“My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.” – Hillary Clinton, November 9th 2016

Book Notes: Hannah and Sugar by Kate Berube

Hannah and Sugar by Kate BerubeKate Berube’s debut picture book Hannah and Sugar deals with fear, a topic that most young kids know very well. A young girl named Hannah longs to pet Sugar, a dog who meets the school bus every afternoon. But, every afternoon, Hannah walks by without petting Sugar because she can’t overcome her fear.

One day, Sugar goes missing, and it is Hannah who finds the dog, leash tangled in the bushes. Hannah wants to run away and find someone else to take care of untangling Sugar’s leash. But, she also wants to be brave. Gathering her courage, she reaches out her hand. When she overcomes her fear and helps Sugar, her neighbors are happy and her father is proud of her. She gains a new friend in Sugar, and is able to pet and hug him every day. Most importantly, she has an inner feeling of pride and happiness.

Berube’s text is spare. The charming illustrations do the work of telling the emotional story. When we read that Hannah says, “No, thank you,” when asked each day if she wants to pet Sugar, Berube’s images show us how Hannah’s eyes never leave Sugar. Her small body leans toward the dog. Her longing for and fear of the dog are both real. Hannah’s body language reminds me of the way my daughter used to watch kids playing on the playground. She’d watch, mesmerized, wanting to join the game, but nervous and unsure.

Sometimes I forget all the things that might make my young kids nervous. It can be the pool, or going into basement alone. My four year old told me he could relate to how Hannah feels because he really wants to go down the very tall slide at the playground, but he doesn’t because he’s scared. Hannah’s story lets him know that fear is a normal part of life, and that there are ways to overcome it.

None of us at any age are immune to fear. Hannah and Sugar provides an opportunity to talk about fear with your kids. Ask them what makes them feel nervous, and share your own experiences. Figure out where fear is getting in the way, and then challenge yourselves to get past it. Accepting fear as part of life, while not letting it rule our decisions, is a skill that requires practice. For any of us who have missed opportunities because of fear, Hannah and Sugar reminds us to take a deep breath and be brave. There are so many beautiful rewards waiting on the other side of that fear.

Alive to the world

Crows screech,

black robes beating

against a diffuse grey sky.

In a breath of quiet

a new sound,

clear and bright,

trills from my laurel bush,

and a somber blue jay

hops

from branch to delicate branch

testing his morning legs.

His voice, more poignant

because it is alone,

and sweeter

by its sole performance.

Sweeter still

by the gentle frame of my memory

as I recall

the cascade of notes

that greeted me

because I

had decided

to listen.

Adore Life, Part 2

Yesterday I posted about the album “Adore Life” by Savages. I’ve been thinking more and more about why the sentiment – to adore life, to embrace it without trying to pick off only the best moments – resonates with me so deeply.

It’s not because I’m coming up on an age at which people start thinking about their mortality. Certainly not that.

It’s not because I have regrets. Those mistakes that used to cause me pain are now slowly making their way into the “experience” column, and I try not to perseverate over them as much as I used to do.

It’s because of writing.

Writing requires me to be present, to sit in a messy, uncomfortable, difficult process, and strive to make something beautiful. It requires focus and sacrifice, by which I mainly mean forgoing evenings of television and lunches with friends. Writing a novel is the work of years, and in each second of that time there are so many other tasks that are definitely easier and possibly more critical than sitting with my pen. It’s a miracle a book ever gets written at all.

So, as I write, I have to remind myself that my time on the planet is short. It will end – as Jehnny  Beth sings, maybe tomorrow – and I my moments will be spent. Why not spend them living fiercely, loudly, and wholly? Why not adore life, even the messy and difficult parts?

Why not try and make a a miracle?

Savages, “Adore Life”

Savages “Adore Life”

It started with an image:  Savages, onstage in New York City. Immediately, I searched for online videos, then stared at the screen as if hypnotized. Every aspect of their music and style was intense and gorgeous, full of energy and strength. I don’t know much about punk. I only knew that Savages music stirred something in me, and I wanted to listen to more.

I pre-ordered Savages second album Adore Life in January. When I told a friend what it was called, his response was that the title didn’t seem very punk, which I think means that it didn’t sound angry enough. But, here’s the thing: anger is everywhere. There’s little that’s interesting or transgressive about it. Anger is what the cool kids do when they’re afraid. Anger is how we keep each other at a distance.

This music is the antithesis of the easy, the complacent, and the guarded. It questions, and yes rages against, expectations and assumptions.

I understand the urgency of life
In the distance there is truth which cuts
like a knife
Maybe I will die maybe tomorrow
So I need to say
I adore life

Savages “Adore”

There couldn’t be a more transgressive sentiment than this one. These lyrics are not about playing it cool, hedging bets. There are, in fact, no bets to be hedged. There is nothing but this life. We spend all of our moments, one way or another. If we spend them badly, they are gone from us just the same. These lyrics challenge us to live and to love with our whole hearts and bodies. Each of us has that choice.

Several months ago, inspired by Savages drummer Fay Milton (amazing beyond the power of my words to describe), I took up drum lessons. When we play music, when we listen to it, when we let ourselves be moved emotionally, spiritually, and physically, we affirm that we are here, that we are connected. We affirm our irrevocable right and innate responsibility to take up space and make plenty of noise. The drums, being some of the most space-taking and noise-making instruments around, are a helpful tool for practicing this. And I can hardly stop smiling when I’m playing, I feel so alive.

I adore music for the power it has to change me, as if the right frequencies could actually reverberate through my bone and tissue and liquid, and rearrange my molecules. I adore Savages for making the kind of music that makes me stop what I’m doing and listen.

And I need to say: I adore life.

Check out Savages videos on their website and on YouTube, especially this favorite of mine, a live performance on KEXP. Don’t watch if you like your molecules where they are.

A Poem and a Promise

I’m doing nothing
but being me.

I’m not a wife
or a mother
right now

I’m not a generous friend

Breathing in breathing out
Feeling my shoulders
they rise and fall
as my lungs fill
the soft muscles in my back
expand
then contract
whether I notice or not

And feeling the smooth skin of my calf against my shin
and my hands resting heavily on my thighs

I’m moving
a little
because there is music

I’m returning to the stillness
and quiet
and breath

I’m reminding myself that being me
is enough
I’m not lacking
any critical components or
depth
I’m not too much, either
too demanding
too sensitive
too tired

I’m learning
I’m enough

I’ll keep learning

**

Today, I pledge that I won’t worry about what I am — too heavy, out of shape, a pushover, a bore, unsuccessful – or what I am not – a published writer, in great shape, funny, popular. Those worries are counter-productive to a full, creative life. So, today, I’ll keep them at bay. I’ll protect myself and my creativity from them, the same way I’d protect my children from a gang of bullies.

DIY MFA: Text #5, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.

Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.

The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”

Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.

His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.

Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.

We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.

In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless.  One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.

The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?

For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.

Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series: