Faith is like a lover you’re separated from in wartime, someone back home who keeps your picture on the dresser and lights a candle for you every night.

Faith is the partner you long to be reunited with, the reason you went to war, the one who believed in you and promised to wait, even when you left to join this crazy volunteer army, even when your marching orders sent you on what seems sure to be a suicide mission.

You’re somewhere overseas now, separated from faith by an ocean of obligation and threat, and the picture in your bunker is definitely worse for the wear: the edges are curling in the heat and its smiling image is faded by the ongoing assault of elements out of your control: the deoxygenated atmosphere of necessity, the barometric pressure of loss, the relentless advance of the enemy as it ravages the trenches of your mind, lobbing mustard gas and threatening a dirty bomb.

You wonder if you’ll ever see faith again, and how you’re going to explain yourself if you do: you think that even if fate sees fit to bring you home, you’ll be unrecognizable.

You lie staring at the picture, which despite this worldly damage still captures something of the original. You marvel at its innocence, at the purity of its intentions, and feel tears running a clean line down your own camouflaged face—a tiny river of love and connection to everything you hold dear. The enemy’s artillery goes suddenly quiet; even sniper fire seems to be suspended, silenced by the moment’s grace.

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I walk down to the ocean in the late afternoon just as God exhales, and a long-held breath of fog comes to meet me. White and pure, it gathers itself around me like a cataract in some ancient eye, obscuring all traces of intellect. I start to feel disoriented, wobbly, as my feet, kissed by wet sand, are drawn in.

What is it that grounds us, really? How do we even know where we stand?

I look behind me and make out a faint scaffolding built of driftwood that some other pilgrims and sojourners have built, pointing the way back to the ordinary world like the lamp post in Narnia—but it doesn’t comfort me, because what I really long for is somewhere else, somewhere further into this blinding grace of fog, somewhere closer to the sound of waves like a steady heart beating through some surrounding womb, roaring reassurance.

I am not lost here, but I want to be. I want to lie down in the sand, to feel God’s skin against mine without the protection of verticality and the impervious soles of my man-made shoes, but I’m not yet bold enough to act as crazy as I really am.

Instead, I turn back to civilization, trudge through dry sand, crawl into the human exoskeleton of houses and wires and cables barnacled to the coast, and watch the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever made, three times.

Con Air is playing in Japanese on one channel, and then in English, weirdly, on two others. It’s about a vet who goes to prison before his daughter is even born, for accidentally killing some guy in a bar fight. From prison, he writes to his daughter every day and as the movie opens, he’s finally on parole and catching a ride home in a plane full of hardcore convicts.

Suddenly the cable company develops an intermittent power failure and the screen turns to dirty snow, but instead of giving up, I become mesmerized by the pattern: seven seconds of snow, followed by two seconds of movie, repeated through two hours of John Malkovitch, Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi creating every kind of mayhem possible in and with a Fairchild C-123 Provider, with John Cusack in pursuit on the ground.

The cable signal becomes steady again in time for Nicholas Cage, made up as Hollywood’s idea of Jesus–all cut up in a wife-beater undershirt, with shoulder-length hair–to reunite with the seven-year-old daughter who has never seen him before. “I was going to get a haircut,” he offers, and I forgive Cage his terrible fake Southern accent, forgive the stellar cast for wasting their time on this terrible movie, and forgive myself when my foolish heart jumps at the chance to watch it again, uninterrupted, when it starts to replay at 2 a.m.

My own father never came back from the prison of alcoholism, never sent me a letter of any kind, never beat out the bad guys. My father’s reappearance in my life was announced not by John Cusack, but rather by a phone call from the Ventura County Coroner when I was twenty-three years old.

Now, even four decades later, I am still a fatherless child, waiting for a letter or a sign of any kind. It’s possible that my reaching for God is entirely explained by this psychological set-up, and of course there are many who would see it that way.

But it’s also possible that my particular emotional background simply highlights in me a natural human impulse in us all—to reach for that which is beyond us, to hope for someone who understands us and can help us understand ourselves, to admit the vastness and importance of the unknown, to move forward into a blinding white fog that reaches for us in this strange world, as ridiculous as it is sublime.

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Name It

When your trash-talking inner critic tries to convince you not to write (or for that matter, not to do anything that feels too risky), it can be useful to take notes on its argument. It will basically be trying to convince you to avoid risking judgment, to avoid risking that people will think what you write is . . .

. . .what, exactly? What’s on that critic’s list? Write it down. Name it. Here’s an example from my own archives of self-doubt:

People will think what I have to say is:
new-age drivel,
obvious AND shallow
religious foolishness
too twisted to follow
or to care about,
not engaging,
Proustian, but only in a bad way,
unnecessarily complicated, because it’s
but also wrong:
it’s the kind of obvious that’s just drivel
like something a New York Times critic,
or even an intern in the mail room,
would recognize as trite sentiment
from an elbow-patch would-be-intellectual
part-time community college adjunct,
the poor cousin who comes to the party wearing
an outfit she’s saved up for that is completely
unfashionable, like patent Mary Janes and knee socks
and a handmade dress from a Simplicity pattern
she loved in junior high . . .
Okay, wait, now I’m starting to like this girl.
New York sophistication isn’t everything—
it isn’t even desirable, for God’s sake—
so fuck that!
And if the stuff I want to write about were so obvious,
people wouldn’t still be tangled up by it,
New Yorkers included.
I’m strapping up, with my Mary Janes.

See what I mean? Naming shit can be useful in helping you recognize shit.

Try it.

Posted in Creativity, self doubt, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Student Body

Community College Essay #1: Narratives

One was sleeping alone under a streetlight
by fourth grade. One slept under the porch
with the dogs to keep warm in winter.
One tried to sleep curled in a ball with her brother
in a pile of empty Pepsi bottles on the floor of the car,
hearing coyotes howl in the dark, waiting for their parents
to open the dealer’s door and come back to them.

One was randomly shot at nine years old,
walking home from the school bus. When he
realized no one was going to pull over
to help him, he got up and kept on walking.

One did the reading assignments holding her book
in the oven for light because her boyfriend wouldn’t
allow the overhead or lamp for anything as stupid
as going back to school. Many were beaten or raped
by uncles or fathers or neighbor boys, one when she
was just ten, bent screaming over a log in the woods,
warned not to tell or her family would die, then called
a whore when her mother found her bloodied underwear.

Most were told to sit down and shut up, or taught
that lesson the hard way, in schools that weren’t
much different from jail, to which they graduated.
A few miraculously found freedom in prison, in some
recovery program or writing class that random luck,
or grace, put in their path. More just found a new level
of pain to endure, or a reason to try opting out.
So very many went to war as the honorable alternative
to being dead-end poor, and ended up just dead—
or alive to things even harder to carry than body armor.

None of them expect help.
None of them ask for it.
None of them feel they deserve
to succeed.

They work so hard it makes my heart seize up.

What on earth do I have to give my students, beyond
teaching academic outcomes that look ridiculously
superficial on the syllabus of real life?

Maybe it’s as simple, and as hard, as listening. Maybe it’s
as unprofessional as refusing to red pen the sacred body
of their work. Maybe it’s as human as shared tears, as powerful
as the surprise of respect, striking their path—and mine—like lightning.

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What is “higher education”?

As we all know by now,  Massive Open Online Courses are slated to transform it, once corporations like Coursera decide how to “monetize” them and figure out how to polish the rough assessment edges on peer review as a way of grading stuff that can’t be done via Scantron without having to pay teachers to (for example) read a paper. So in the brave new world, students will watch recorded lectures of famous professors–say from MIT, a MOOC pioneer–then work their own way through the reading, take tests, and earn credit toward a degree at a discount. Profits should soar because the inconvenience of having to hire faculty, or support bricks-and-mortar campuses, will fade. Lest you think this is some far-off sci-fi future, note that Bill Gates’ foundation is funding the effort, and that it’s being marketed as democratization and accessibility, a savvy frame that makes the opposition look like selfish bullies standing in the way of the poor people who will flock to its open door. But at what cost?

If someone changed your life, if someone believed in you before you believed in yourself, if someone inspired you to learn or to think or to hope, that someone was probably a teacher–and most likely a high school or community college English teacher, working in the trenches of real life, learning the names and faces and dreams of a few hundred students every term, and often keeping in touch with students over the course of a lifetime. This is the kind of higher education that no MOOC will ever deliver, let alone be able to assess.

Out of the blue, I got a message on my machine from my high school English teacher, whose name is, improbably, Ideale. I am sixty-five years old, and even though I’ve been in touch with him only a handful of times since we met at Hamilton High School in 1960, he is one of the most important people in my life–possibly the most important, if I consider the developmental aspects of what he taught me about life and about myself. Our conversations, decades apart, always begin with “I don’t know if you’ll remember me…”; of course I remember him, but the amazing thing is that he remembers me. “You were one of my best students,” he always says–and I soak it up like water in a drought, even though I suspect that every student he talks to makes that A list.

“I found some of your writing, and that drawing you sent me,” he says, “and I wondered how you’re doing. People from all over the world have been coming to visit me,” he adds, with that amazed delight that was always his default response to anything that happened to him. I remember he once told us in World Literature class that the course of his life had been altered when he was our age by falling in love with his wife, Sonia. “I would have become a juvenile delinquent without her,” he tells us, “but instead, I became the man she wanted me to be.” Then, in a moment of inspiration that would be stifled in today’s classrooms, he gazes out the window and tells us, “she had breasts like ripe peaches,” his Italian hands helplessly demonstrating what it felt like to reach for them.

They married at seventeen, I think, and when I asked him the over the phone the other day how Sonia is, he said, “Perfect! She’s always been perfect!” and I can hear his mouth shape into a perfect, glorious smile as he says it. Then he tells me, “Robert flew in–from Princeton! He’s friends with Noam Chomsky,” he adds, laughing. “He liked you, you know.”

“I know,” I say, thinking, my God–how does he remember even his students’ romantic interests, and picturing what my retirement years would look like if I had married Robert in high school. “Tell him I regret that I didn’t reciprocate,” I say, laughing too.

“You should come see me,” Ideale says, and I tell him I’m broke. “I’ll pay for your ticket,” he offers, and I know he means it, even if he says it to everyone. “There’s room for you here.”

“I’ll come if I can,” I say, knowing that I won’t, because I couldn’t bear to see him, because my heart begins to suspect why he’s really called me and is breaking because it’s suddenly clear that he cares enough about me–how does he even remember me!–to let me know that he will be moving on soon.

“How are you?” I say, and he tells me what a wonderful life he’s had, how perfect his two children are, how much he loved his forty years of teaching. He tells me how dismayed he still is by religion, and I smile to myself because this man is the most perfect representative of faith, hope and charity I have ever known. He’s obviously still up on current events because he asks me what the hell “legitimate rape” is, and I can picture him shaking his head. He’s been reading a seven hundred page biography of Mark Twain.

I ask him how old he is, and he says, laughing again, “eighty-six.” I photoshop the mental image I have, adding some Einstein white hair to the forty-year-old I knew who drove a motorcycle to school and parked it under the flag pole in some kind of effort at political balance.

“You should come see me,” he says again, “and don’t wait too long.” This is the part I’ve been afraid to hear, but I try to follow his rational lead as I brace for what I know is coming. He laughs as he adds, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around–there are a lot of tumors.”

“Are you in treatment?” I ask, and he tells me no, there are too many this time. I tell him I will write to him, that I’ve become a teacher myself, that my life feels like maybe it counts for something at last.

“It’s a wonderful life,” he says, like a benediction. There is only joy in his voice–no trace of fear or regret, and I realize that once again, he is showing me the way forward.

How much longer will teachers like Ideale Gambera be around in your life, or your childrens’, once “higher education” is downsized and redefined to exclude human relationships?

(You can click here if you want to read my letter to Ideale)

Posted in Aging, Education, Faith, Love, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

One more Christmas present

I have been away from my blog and everyone else’s ever since I got the new job, because my work load suddenly tripled, my sanity level red-lined, and time to do anything beyond what’s absolutely necessary for survival dwindled down to a fond memory. Many things have suffered: I said to my son the other day, “I remember when I used to be nice to people.”

Nevertheless, since it’s Christmas, I wanted to take a few minutes in support of  friend, client, fellow writer, and Very Good Man–Jose Chaves–to let everyone know that for today only, you can download for free a Kindle version of his wonderful memoir, The Contract of Love.

This book is my last editing project, and even though I have read it many times over the several years and multiple versions I worked with, it still makes me laugh and cry every few pages. It’s one of those rare books that deliver at the end, instead of trailing off or falling apart–and that’s because it reflects the real-life trajectory of its author.

My son and I spent Christmas eve with Jose’s family last night–it’s the kind of house where kids, friends, and neighbors congregate spontaneously, with or without an invitation, where people laugh and sing and nobody cares whether it’s on key, where ten different conversations  about everything from philosophy to skateboarding are going on at once, where people are happy without being drunk, high without being drugged, and close without dishonesty or compromise.

I am giving away the ending of the story, but I don’t think that will spoil the read–because don’t we all want to hear about how someone survived the deep pain we are all familiar with, and even transcended it?

I know that every such story helps heal my own childhood damage, and that makes such work a particularly appropriate Christmas gift: it’s like a light in this dark world whenever one of us reaches for love, and finds it.

Click here for your present, and Merry Christmas!

12/28 update:

If you missed the Christmas giveaway, you can still get the Kindle book for free by clicking on the above link on January 12 (and only January 12). Happy New Year!

Posted in Love, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Well now I feel ridiculous

…because after my post about the job interview that went horribly wrong except for the fact that I discovered I could scream—well—I got the job. So okay, you kindred spirits: can we pause self-doubt and condemnation as the default tape for long enough to acknowledge that we aren’t all that bad?

Hard, isn’t it.

Perfectionism, high expectations, self-blame, punishment, shame—they’re like a pack of hyenas who know there’s still meat on the carcass, waiting to resume their meal even when driven off. You can hear them grunting and howling while they wait for you to start in on yourself again. And they are apparently as smart as primates, so don’t think that your success is going to deter them from going after you:

In a study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr Benson-Amram showed that spotted hyenas experimented with different strategies to open a closed box…. Some of the hyenas tried just a few methods to open the puzzle box while others used many, including biting, flipping it over, digging underneath it and pushing it around. Those that tried a diverse range of techniques tended to be more successful and once they had opened the box once, they were able to open it again more quickly…. Dr Benson-Amram added: “We found that successful hyenas got much faster at solving the problem over time. Eventually they learned the solution such that they would run up to the puzzle box and open it within seconds. …We saw some indications that wild hyenas were also learning about the problem by observing others solve it. One hyena, however, that could not figure out how to open the puzzle, learned he could position himself near the door so that when another hyena solved the puzzle he could get to the meat faster and eat it all.”

Yeah, really. (Sidebar to writers: trust the subconscious to offer up an image–even when it’s a cliche like that pack of hyenas–that turns out to be a scarier metaphor than anything mere intellect could provide!)

So trying to save ourselves with reassurance and repetition of all the wonderful things people have said about us (and people did say some unequivocally wonderful things about what I thought had been a complete disaster)—or even with a litany of past successes (I’ve had many)—is just an attempt to build a better, more hyena-proof, box while those suckers are just watching how you put it together and doing their reverse-engineering number all the while. Maybe that’s why they often sound like they’re laughing.

So forget about that! As I said in my original post, screaming was an excellent response to the hyena pack of inner critics, at least in the initial phase of the attack after I thought I had failed: it’s probably what drove them off, because prey that screams is still alive, and might thus pose a threat to their existence.

But what do we do with success? We can’t lock ourselves in our car, as I did when I thought I’d failed, and drive around town screaming all the time. Success, paradoxically, requires a more sustainable response, and thus success—at least for us damaged perfectionists—is a whole lot harder than failure.


Crap! We’re tormented when we fail, and even more tormented when we succeed, because all that’s changed is that the expectations are higher, so we feel weaker and more inadequate—and that kind of anxiety works on the hyenas like the scent of blood.

But if I follow this metaphor, as I advise my writing students to do, the solution is as simple and straightforward as the fear: instead of working to build a box around yourself that they can’t open, just step out and live. Scavengers, no matter how smart or resourceful, can’t pry you out of a box you have left behind–and they don’t have the strength to take on someone who is fully, simply, alive: making mistakes and good decisions, taking wrong and right turns, breaking and fixing things, trying and failing and moving on.

So here’s what I’m going to try to do: I’m going to try to remember that the gift of life isn’t dependent on performance, or worth—and that our potential isn’t measured by effort or good works, or even by DNA or environment: it’s all about what we love. When we love the good—for example, when we see someone in need and want to reach out a hand to them—performance doesn’t matter as much as intent. And intent does come across: so what if I couldn’t find the light switch, or work the computer, or even string together a coherent sentence in my job interview. I have loved the people I teach, and that’s the truth—and I’m lucky enough to work in a place and with people who value the same things I do.

That’s why I got the job. It wasn’t about being good enough, let alone perfect: it was about being alive and in love with my work.

The gift of life is often given and received blindly, but as we grow up we can increasingly catch a glimpse of what it means (through that glass, darkly) and be grateful. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating, if only as a reminder to myself: you can’t go wrong with gratitude. Appreciating the gift of life is one ability that increases with age, so that paradoxically as we move toward physical death, we can become more fully, imperfectly, alive every single day.

That—and laughing a whole lot more—is my plan for dealing with success.

Posted in Aging, Education, Identity, Love, Perfectionism, Psychology, self doubt, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments