Tag Archives: journey

How Fast the Way Home

We departed in the dark. The kids spread blankets over their laps in the backseat. I clutched my coffee mug. An audiobook helped us pass the driving time, over roads that became increasingly crowded, until finally we rolled into an almost full museum parking lot. The museum sat on a large, flat field where families had already begun to lay out their picnic blankets and folding chairs.

The field was covered in dry yellow grass, and populated by shiny aircraft and lazy bees. We wandered around – on the playground, through the museum exhibits – to fill the hours before the big event, the total solar eclipse.

When we noticed a change in the quality of the light, we hurried back to our chairs. We passed people looking at the sky through glasses, cameras, even colanders. We walked as quickly as we could, kicking up clouds behind us, as we resisted the urge to look at the sky.

I gave out the glasses – three pairs, one each for the kids and me. We looked up, then, and saw a dull orange circle, like a copper penny, with the slightest interruption in its circumference. The moon had begun its intrusion.

The air was festive and chatty. Music played over loudspeakers, songs chosen for their kitsch factor – “Bad Moon Rising,” “Dancing in the Dark”- but a quiet rippled over all of us as we felt something shift. The color of the sky darkened to a twilight blue at the dome. The wind picked up, blowing my sweater around me. I shivered, and a thrill went through my belly.

The sun had but a crescent left. My daughter said the sun reminded her of the moon when it’s waning. A boy behind us called out, “The diamond ring!” Above us, a faint band of light circled the moon’s shadow, and a last, bright gasp of sunlight blazed for the blink of an eye.

A cheer went up as the moon covered the sun. The light was twilight dim. We pulled off our glasses and stared at the wildly hairy corona. Tears sprang into my eyes. I grabbed my kids’ hands. I know the eclipse is a truly scientific phenomenon, but the world miracle kept coming to mind.

I insist that it is miraculous and scientific, both. All of us people, brought by our curiosity to sit in the bee’s field on a summer morning, are miraculous. We orbit each other, sometimes touching, sometimes moving apart. Isn’t it miraculous when any two of us, among the millions that co-exist on Earth, share a moment?

The celestial bodies parted almost at the same moment they met. The unveiling of the sun was quick. Gone was the anticipation, the mystery. We knew where we would end up. The way home is always faster than the trip to the destination. Almost immediately, the sky brightened and we were warm again. There was no sign of the rare alignment that had just occurred. We turned ourselves toward home, and I still held two hands in mine.

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

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.

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Book Notes: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer“The first few moments up there were terrifying.

I felt stupid, actually.

Vulnerable. Silly.

It was lucky that I was covered in white face paint – my face burned bright red beneath it for the first ten minutes, I could feel it.

The sheer absurdity of what I was doing was not lost on me.”

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

Before Amanda Palmer was part of punk-cabaret group The Dresden Dolls, before she was a Kickstarter phenomenon, she painted herself white from head to toe, dressed as a bride, and stood on a crate in Harvard Square, performing as a human statue. When someone dropped money into her hat, Palmer offered a flower and a moment of meaningful eye contact.

Palmer’s new book The Art of Asking is part memoir, part manifesto. With her life stories, collected anecdotes, ideas from other artists, and a dash of scientific data, Palmer talks about her journey to becoming a master of asking people to help her.

There are several reasons why people feel uncomfortable asking for and accepting help. For one, our society prizes self-sufficiency and disapproves of anyone who appears to be asking for a handout. Those who do ask for help are often criticized as unworthy poseurs. Palmer calls these critics the Fraud Police.

She points to the example of Henry David Thoreau. He has been criticized because, while he was writing his treatise on self-reliance, he accepted the generosity of friends and family, who gave him the land and food that sustained him throughout his work. Palmer writes that “every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods for him, including donuts.”

Thoreau’s donuts become symbolic in Palmer’s discussion of support for artists. She points out that no one would criticize Einstein or Florence Nightingale for accepting donuts. But artists “just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.” She urges all of us to “take the donuts,” to see what we do as deserving of help, whether that help comes from fans, patrons, or family.

Palmer writes that she’s frequently asked how she “gets” people to support her work. Her response: she doesn’t get them to, she lets them. These aren’t strangers; these are her fans, her tribe. These are people who have shared stories with her, opened themselves up to her, allowed themselves to be moved by her. Palmer understands that her community wants to express their love and appreciation for her. As she writes, “Accepting the gift IS the gift.”

The book is beautifully written, with humor and, at times, raw honesty. The idea of asking for help ties me up in knots of anxiety. I don’t like imposing on people. But, as I read this book, I realized my inability to ask is really stinginess wrapped in a disguise of selflessness. There’s a generosity to asking, to letting people see your vulnerability and need. When we let people do for us, there is a ripple effect. Giving to each other strengthens bonds and gives others permission to ask for help in their times of need. Palmer call this “tightening the net.”

Palmer’s way of looking at life makes a lot of sense, not just for artists, but for everyone. In her world, giving and receiving are equally necessary. Both keep the ecosystem strong, breathing out just as critical as breathing in. They’re so equal that the lines become blurred; it’s hard to tell who’s giving, and who’s receiving.

Give the flower, take the flower. Give the love, take the love. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, as Palmer says, the gift keeps moving.

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.