Grab ahold

I added Warren Zevon’s darkly comic song, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” to my playlist after age and illness made death my new roommate, and I felt a need for better company. Lately, in light of current events—I’m writing this as the impeachment hearings unfold—I’ve felt like transposing the lyrics into second person, because our mutual shit is definitely fucked up.

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I don’t even know my country anymore, and at the same time I know it all too well: I came of age during the civil rights revolution, but as a child I lived in the segregated South with dirt-poor farmers, no indoor plumbing, and a shotgun in the corner that everyone knew how to use. Both worlds were shaped by unbelievably hard work, poverty, and fierce sacrifice—most American families have at least that much in common, despite our bloody and divisive history, despite anger, blame, ignorance, and fear, which we also share.

“You can dream the American dream,” Zevon once wrote, “but you sleep with the lights on and wake up with a scream.” He was a literary musician who wrote about the terrorism of mortality for most of his life, like a captive journalist embedded behind enemy lines.

His mother was a Mormon from Salt Lake City, his father a Russian gangster from—of all places—Ukraine; growing up, Zevon played classical piano and when they moved to Los Angeles, he studied with Igor Stravinsky, who lived nearby. No wonder his music was out of the mainstream, whether it was classical, folk, or rock: Dostoevsky with a guitar.

He earned the regard of people like Springsteen and Dylan but not their fame—he was confined to cult status in content as well as genre, due to his obsession with the “wretched human condition” of aging and his role as the “travel agent for death,” as he wryly put it (“you know, spokesperson for the doomed”). It was a role from which he was only released, ironically, by the surprise of his own sudden terminal diagnosis.

He died of mesothelioma, which could not have been an easy way to go. And yet his music near the end was full of tenderness rather than terror or regret, and made hardly any mention of dying beyond the beautifully oblique lyric, “keep me in your heart for a while.” By the time he was ill, I guess, he and death had gotten to know each other well enough to arrive at some kind of accommodation, like family who finally stop yelling and learn to accept each other.

I’m speaking now of the family we were born into—of parents and bothers and sisters, of neighborhoods and countries—and ultimately, of the human family blindly colonizing this lush planet with a dangerous combination of ambition, ability, ignorance, and belief.

Acceptance doesn’t come easy when people are doing real damage to themselves or others, so most of us run through other options first, like the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression, loneliness. Eventually, we may get so depleted or disgusted that we just give up: we disengage because we conclude that these people are just hopelessly frozen like insects in amber, stuck in some misguided, wrongheaded, or outdated belief system, or too psychologically impaired to reach. There’s no getting through to them, and resignation at least offers us a chance to walk away emotionally.

In contrast to resignation’s retreat, though, acceptance stands still. It holds its ground and looks reality in the eye, even as it gives up wishing that other people would change. Acceptance doesn’t require anything of others, but it demands much more of us than mere resignation, namely, the ability to identify with those who trouble us—and that may only happen when we get old enough or sick enough or threatened enough or mean enough to realize that we are walking in their same old shoes. It can be a shock to find ourselves limping along on bound and painful feet, to feel the rocks in our own road start to poke through the worn-thin soles of our defenses. Or maybe we realize that we, too, are stuck.

The other day I had such a shock, remembering the years during which my older son’s father was slowly immobilized by Parkinson’s disease, remembering how he lay in bed day after week after month after year while I tried, of necessity, to get on with the business of life. I thought I had done well enough by him, all things considered, but now I saw that his constricting world was something I could not even begin to understand until death moved in as my own roommate and I found myself lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Instantly, that shock of recognition revealed the magnitude of what my husband had suffered, and I was overcome with regret about how I had treated him, wrapped in sorrow because only now, all these years later, could I fully understand the man I had loved.

Compassion is a hard, hard lesson—and yet its tears fall on us like the blessing of rain after a killing drought.

I came across Warren Zevon’s song “Fistful of Rain” at about that same time, in one of those mysterious synchronicities that art seems to facilitate. It washed up on the shore of my life like a note in a bottle on the internet sea—and despite its painful opening commentary on the American dream, despite the obvious futility inherent in the title image—this song struck me stock still with hope, as if grace had come knocking at the door after a long absence, and I knew that knock. I heard it in the heartbeat bass underneath Zevon’s exotic combination of penny whistle, piccolo, and harmonica; it was the kind of tune that makes you feel like you should go outside and take your hat off out of respect, while the procession passes by:

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“In a heart,” Zevon explains, “there are windows and doors—you can let the light in, you can feel the wind blow. When there’s nothing to lose, and nothing to gain—grab ahold of that fistful of rain.”


Note to longtime subscribers: I took this blog private a few years ago in order to redesign it, but my life got redesigned instead. I only started writing again a year or so ago, with a piece I kept to myself called “When Death Is Your Roommate” (a sexy topic sure to captivate the demographic that can no longer read, remember, or buy books!). I’ve finally been convinced, however, that I should come out of my self-imposed literary quarantine, reopen the blog, and share what’s been consuming my attention. Because suddenly, death is everyone’s roommate. 


P.S. After I posted this, I realized I should have added some reassurance for those of you who are old friends as well as subscribers: I did have a cancer episode, but the treatments went well and resulted in a very low chance of recurrence. Everything else is merely debilitating, so the only terminal diagnosis I currently have is the one that comes as an addendum to every life, down in the fine print at the bottom of the page. The thing is, my new roommate knows it by heart and recites it every time I try to get rid of him, like the section of US code that prohibits evictions in a covered section 8 housing project. More about him another time.

 

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Well, damn.

Please ignore and/or delete any posts you may have gotten from me in the last few days: in attempting to resurrect my blog after a three-year absence, I somehow managed to make public some junk drafts—like dictionary definitions of faith, and God only knows what else—while WordPress decided to email my very first post from 2010 (“Leverage”) instead of the new one I had just added (“Grab ahold”).

Anyhow, after spending yesterday afternoon online with a WordPress Happiness Engineer (!) I’m about to try again. If all goes well this time, you should receive the new post by email in a day or two.

P.S. Thanks to those of you who commented on the junk with such polite questions and kind thoughts, like you’d extend to a loved one with dementia—I now feel better about the prospect of entirely losing my mind, and will hold on to that bright glimpse into my future. 🙂

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Going dark

I’m on hiatus for a while, building a new website for the reincarnation of my consulting business and integrating my blog with it. I’ll let you know when it’s done and I’m back!

Barbara

P.S.  Meanwhile, don’t let anyone keep you from “dancing, laughing, dreaming, feeling, flying. . .without shame.” (Vaya con Dios, Juan Gabriel.)

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God bless the nerds

My younger son, the computer network security major, resolved a vulnerability issue the other day that I thought was impossible to defend against, i.e., my turning seventy years old. Friends and well-wishers wanted to congratulate me, to celebrate, to drop by with a bottle of wine, even (introvert’s worst nightmare) to throw a party. All I wanted was to escape notice, especially since all the attention meant that I would have to get out of bed, clean up my trash-heap house, get out of my robe and slippers, and probably even wash my hair, all before noon so that my real routine, which unfolds on vampire time, wouldn’t come to light and cause embarrassment to us all. (Sometimes nowadays I don’t crawl out of the coffin until mid-afternoon, and then I keep the shades tightly drawn until the scorching light of reality subsides, taking with it the angry press of humanity, the business world’s open doors, the evening news, and the obligation to do something about the dismal state of affairs in the world, in my bank account, and in my body while my government representatives, credit card advisors, and health care professionals are still up and about.)

“Seventy is a big number,” people keep reminding me, as if I didn’t realize that in every part of my failing body! There is absolutely nothing to celebrate about turning seventy, in my opinion, except that at least you aren’t turning seventy-five yet, or eighty. Even my natural optimism is degrading with age, along with patience, graciousness, and generosity. Time has become not only short but also annoyingly vocal, like Joe Pesci yammering away while I’m trying to defuse some lethal-weapon style bomb.

And yet: not even the grasping hand of death seems to faze true nerds. My younger son has a Future Corpses of America tee-shirt, but there is a tender heart hidden beneath it; his razor-edge mind is uncompromisingly scientific, but also fuses logic with the creativity necessary to solve complex problems. I had felt despair when Trump said he was going to defund the National Endowment for the Arts until I realized that nerds are today’s real poets—subversives living in basements instead of attics, subsisting on pizza instead of baguettes, guzzling Amps instead of Chianti. They are, impossibly, the true romantics of our age: artistic savants fluent in multiple languages, gifted in metaphoric association, familiar with our entire body of literature and able to decrypt anything from a simple Caesar cipher to Boomhauer’s speech on King of the Hill. They have minds like libraries because they are addicted to intellectual spice, like the space/time navigators of Dune. They are notoriously shy, yet deeply embedded in the emerging world. Given what they know and do, they have every right to be cynical as hell–and yet they tend to be good natured, able to laugh at themselves, and understanding when other people get frustrated–because their work is all about persevering in the face of certain, and repeated failure.

God bless them. They never give up, and they never surrender, even when—like the Tim Allen character in Galaxy Quest—they have to just make it up as they go.

When I complained to my son that I didn’t want to be seventy, even though I did want my chocolate cake and candles so I could make an impossibly stupid wish, this is what he brought down the hall for me:

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Of course, I required an explanation for the “X 46” candle arrangement, since base 16 computer code didn’t immediately spring to my mind, and he was happy to oblige:

“You’re forty-six in Hex, not seventy, Mom,” he said, and gave me a hug, reminding me that I do really have quite a lot to celebrate.

God bless and keep the nerds.

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Replacing New Year’s Resolutions

Willpower has always seemed to me like some highfalutin relative with an ivy league education living in a distant metropolitan city, having no idea what I’m dealing with down South, where I live. She wraps her bacon around asparagus spears and garnishes it with arugula, while I stuff mine inside a buttermilk biscuit and smother it with red-eye gravy.

She doesn’t visit me, and I don’t want to hear from her. While she maintains a grim, healthy abstinence, the genetic material we share has mutated in me into a stubborn determination to feed myself whatever I want—red beans on white bread, or collards with ham hocks and hot water cornbread, or a mayonnaise sandwich, all of which I actually ate when I did live in the South as a child, God help me.

People tell me about Willpower’s accomplishments, about how I shouldn’t be too proud to ask her for money or at least advice–she’s powerful, by definition, and necessary if I’m ever going to get ahead. But I have always felt towards her like I feel about hedge fund managers, prison wardens, fanatic self-help gurus: probably not folks I really want to spend a lot of time with.

So of course I resist the idea of New Year’s resolutions, which depend on her, and it’s no mystery to me why they fail. Instead, mulling all this over last night while the old year was still painfully fresh in memory and definitely in need of an upgrade, I hit on a more useful end-of-year inventory tool: New Year’s Reminders. A reminder requires no resolve, no willpower, no ambition, and there is no implicit judgment if you ignore it. It’s just an opportunity to use the past as leverage on a better future, just a note from our present to future selves about what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s the year-end template I devised, in case you want to try it. Just make note of:

—Things/people/events that made me feel good in 2016:

—Things/people/events that made me feel like shit: (note: best to stick with your personal life here, as opposed to, say, the extreme melt of the Greenland ice sheet, or who won the election—not that those won’t have very personal consequences)

—Things/people/events that gave me energy:

—Things/people/events that wore me out:

—If I had 2016 to do over again, I would. . .

—If I knew I would die in 2017, I would. . .

—I want to remember. . .

If you do this and feel like sharing some of whatever’s on your list/s, I would love to hear from you. Listening to people talk about real stuff is one of the things that gives me energy. 🙂

Here’s to the coming year, to our renewed opportunity to trust ourselves, to the ongoing work of getting unshackled from expectations and judgment, to hitching our wagons instead to that which is driven by hope, courage, and love.

Barbara

 

 

 

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Who’s Your Daddy?

The first thing I did after The Bloody Divorce was to buy a big-screen TV to replace the thirteen-inch model that, along with the dishwasher, had become the focus of my husband’s crazy interpretation of what was wrong with our family. After he’d gotten a new therapist and Iron John showed up on his nightstand, he started saying things like “I’m the man of the family, and if I say we’re moving to Montana, then we’re moving to Montana!” He took the thirteen-inch TV out of the house when we weren’t home, and when the dishwasher broke, the new one I bought had to sit in the box in the living room with a potted plant on it for six months.

Over the years since the divorce, the TV screen size has grown along with the kids and now, at fifty-eight inches, is limited only by the width of the wall it hangs on. It’s like a huge frame around a display of favorite family members’ pictures: ours include Angus MacGyver, Jim Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, men who had no children in their fictional lives but paradoxically—I realized recently—have been fathers to us, thanks to Netflix.

Note to the data-mining gnomes: not everyone is actually watching TV even when they’re ripping through seven-seasons series back-to-back, nonstop, and then doing it all over again. Over the last few years while my younger son and I have been in college (with him as a student and me as a teacher), we must have logged in at least twelve hours a day of big-screen background sometimes, as we cranked our way through our respective piles of assignments. I know this must sound bad—maybe it is bad—but we are at least discriminating about the characters we live with, which is more than you can say for a lot of families. We don’t generally allow drama, for instance, because it requires too much attention, but we feel right at home with characters who manage to get themselves in trouble regularly and can laugh about it, or who can get out of trouble like MacGyver, using only a gum wrapper or a paper clip. They go about their business while we go about ours, looking up once in a while to laugh when Higgins starts droning on about the Yorkshire Regiment, or Angel goes out the window after promising Rockford he’ll stay put.

There are multiple advantages to having a television family: for one thing, dad is the kind of guy you like to have around, and he’s always home, there in the background, trying to make a living—or at least stay out of hock—while you’re advancing the family’s prospects by tackling machine language or rhetorical modes. He doesn’t care about conventional success, so he’s not all up in your face about performance; he only gets mad under extreme provocation, like when a friend he’s trying to help leaves him holding the bag, and even then he’s good-natured about it. He will give everyone a second, and third, and so on, chance, even the bad guys. He doesn’t carry a gun even though he knows how to use one, and when he takes someone else’s away, he usually just throws it in the drink.

He’s smart but he’s not an asshole about it. People betray or misjudge him in every episode, but he never reciprocates and he’s got a smile that can make you feel okay about the world, no matter how bad the case. He had a good dad himself, and has a soft spot for boys who don’t.

And, of course, things always work out in the end. So every forty-seven minutes or so—or about fifteen times a day around here—no matter how knotty the problem you’re working on in real life may be, you hear a theme song from a few decades ago that manages to capture the innocent thrill of a happy ending, and you laugh at yourself as you hum along.

There are other, more complicated, fathers we also have loved—most notably Andy Sipowicz and Lenny Briscoe—who did have fictional children and who spent most of their time trying to make amends once they got sober, but as with real-life alcoholics like my real-life father, these stories are not good background material and not the kind of thing you can laugh along with. Nevertheless, I count them as family too because they meet my newly-developed definition of a good dad, which is pretty simple: a good father is someone who puts his child’s welfare ahead of his own—always, and no doubt about it. Nothing else really matters all that much.

When I was a child along with television itself, my grandmother used to watch The Guiding Light every day, and she sent greeting cards to Papa Bauer on special occasions as if he were a real person; I’m not sure whether she believed he was real, or, like me, just incorporated fantasy into her reality as a creative prop—but I admire her, either way. So I’m sending this Father’s Day thank-you card to Angus MacGyver, Jim and Joseph Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, as well as to the real men who played and created them, especially Stephen Cannell, with whom I share the good fortune of having had Ralph Salisbury for a writing teacher. (Cannell credited his long, successful career to Ralph, who told him “spelling doesn’t matter” and thus set him free from dyslexia to write The Rockford Files and many other television shows and best-selling novels.)

Last, but certainly not least, Happy Father’s Day to Jean-Luc Picard and Gene Roddenberry for the most enduring TV family of all, role model for the next generation of our entire species, not just the lost children. It’s playing in the background as I write this—can you hear the theme song?

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Things I wish somebody had pounded into my head early on…

…or that I wish I could remember long enough to pound into my own head, even now:

1. Half of life–at least half–is about cleaning up after whatever you are doing in the other half. And it always takes way longer than you think it should.

2. Your forties and fifties are the most productive years of your life, unless you have chronically underestimated #1 and are hence behind the curve.

3. By your sixties, you have been around enough of life’s blocks multiple times to have a pretty good grip on the neighborhood. You want to improve it a little before you move on. You have good ideas and big plans, but principle #1 is still operating in the universe, now in tandem with #2. This may explain why old people don’t bathe enough. And don’t even care: time is short and energy is precious.

4. Time is short and energy is precious! If you don’t know what to do with it, at least conserve it. The day will come.  Try to tidy up as you go: wash the pan right after you fry the egg, throw dirty clothes in the basket instead of on the floor. The tendency to just let things drop is a bad, bad habit because life feels shitty all the time, except for the brief moment when you’ve done a massive cleanup because it got SO shitty you couldn’t stand it anymore. There are implications for emotional work here: talk about it right away–don’t let the sun go down on some sweaty, mildewed laundry pile of bad feelings.

5. Nihilism is a phase, not a sophisticated intellectual achievement. The idea that nothing matters because you’ll probably be dead before you’re thirty anyway is not one you want to get in bed with; its bad-boy appeal ages badly.

6. Life isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of deal. There are a million in-between options. The crap your internal critic offers up–well, you’ve blown it so there’s no point in even trying–is crap. Or if you want a fancier intellectual label, it’s a false dichotomy. Nothing is really either/or; if you look hard, there’s always a third option, and a fourth, and so on. Even when it seems like someone else is in control, has a gun of some kind to your head, you still have the option of choosing how you respond.

7. Children who are wanted swim in love like a warm ocean; they bathe and roll like newborn whales, as if being surrounded by wisdom and guidance were a given. But even if nobody in your family wanted you, you have a right to exist: to take up space, to sing some song of your own making, to want something for yourself and go after it.

8. Life isn’t a contest.

9. With all due respect to John Lennon, love is not all you need unless you still have parents who support you or millions in record sales. But love is all that matters in the end—and by love, I mean the inclination of our hearts toward the good, no matter what we have or haven’t done, no matter how big the laundry pile.

Leaning toward the good, like plants toward the sun, is all that remains of choice in the end—yet in that stripped simplicity there can still be found all the warmth and guidance life has to offer, which is the paradoxical joy of age.

10. I once heard a Jungian psychologist say that the role of elders is to give blessings; I’m pretty sure an immaculate house isn’t part of the job description, nor even is a successful career or financial security—mercifully, we don’t have to be hedge fund managers or highly organized and educated in order to fulfill that role.

Blessings can be pretty simple: telling a child who has never heard such a thing that she is beautiful; listening to someone in turmoil with empathy, and without judgment or advice;  applying the balm of understanding to our own troubled past and its inhabitants.

I suppose that excludes trying to pound things into their heads, come to think of it. So that leaves one more for the list of things I want to remember: writing is underestimated as a path to at least modest gains on enlightenment. (Good news, fellow slackers: write more, vacuum less!)

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Blogging v. flogging

Note: this is something I wrote a few months ago when my writers’ marketing group was discussing blogging; I thought it might be useful for other writers too.

If I felt like I had to blog, I would immediately abandon the whole thing. But just because most everybody else in the writing world sees blogging as a way to build that required platform (a metaphor that I find distasteful on all fronts), and hence they give us onerous imperatives like “blog, blog, blog,” that doesn’t mean we have to see it that way. Blogging that’s done dutifully, out of a sense of obligation, or under duress, can feel like punishment and/or self-flagellation, no doubt! But there’s another way to approach blogging that feels more like coming unshackled—and then finding your way home.

The last post I made on my blog was a year ago, and I’m still getting visitors—admittedly, not a lot of visitors, but that doesn’t matter to me because I don’t see my blog as a marketing tool. I started blogging because I realized that such a vehicle would:

—be a way for me to say some things I want to say right now, instead of waiting until I get around to working them into a book and then get around to trying to publish that book

—let me say those things off-the-cuff, low-stakes, in pieces, in whatever way they come to me, whenever they come, without considering regularity, saleability, marketing, or even coherence

—serve as a central, virtual file cabinet for ideas, insights, ponderings, sketches, and whatnot to replace the scraps of paper, dinner napkins, post-its, abandoned journal efforts, and computer files that have vanished into the writerly Bermuda Triangle over the years (this advantage has been HUGE, because I have multiple “drawers” in the form of multiple private blogs, in which I can store drafts as well as posts: in this way, I’m working on several books or book ideas, and I’m actually reminded of what those ideas were from time to time, because they’re all in the same place)

—set me free from publishing prison, both the supermax New York version and the contemporary minimum-security Amazon: I don’t need anyone’s approval, and publishing is completely free, immediate, and world-wide (this advantage becomes more apparent as time goes by and the monetary rewards of publication continue to shrivel)

Of course, I don’t make any money at all from my blog. But when has any ordinary person made a living at writing anyway? Even poet laureate Ted Kooser sold insurance. And while it used to be possible to get a six-figure advance for a well-written memoir (nostalgic rush here), even those heady numbers won’t pay the rent if you consider the number of years it takes to produce such a thing (six, or ten, or—in my case—twenty-five and counting). A big advance wouldn’t even provide coffee money, if you consider the number of such books you have in you.

So once I accepted that, a whole ‘nuther world opened up (the title of my blog applies here). The opening widened when I realized that my real audience consists mostly of a small tribe of thoughtful pilgrims and sojourners in this strange land—so what’s the point of trying to publish my work like Fifty Shades of Grey, or any other mass-market success? Instead, I can just write something, put it in a blog bottle, and toss it out on the Internet sea, trusting that in time it will find its way to the right shore, and be passed along if it’s worth reading.

If I were writing a novel instead of memoir and essay, things might be different—although I still think I might use a blog in some similar way, since blogs are so fluid and  can be updated, moved, deleted or resurrected, and made private or public at any time. I’m not saying that my approach to blogging would fit everyone, just that it turns out to fit me quite well—and maybe some aspect of this alternate view might fit you, too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

As an unexpected side benefit of blogging, and having made no effort to advertise other than an initial email to a few friends, I have discovered a deep connection with a small but international community of kindred spirits. It startled me when I realized that most of my readers are in the UK (maybe some kind of Celtic magic is at work here). These are people I have come to know and care about, and such a virtual connection suits my introverted, writerly nature perfectly: there’s no obligation to read, or write, or respond—so everything is a gift.

It’s really quite beautiful.

When I think of some of the things these people have said to me, and vice versa, and of the numinous quality of our ordinary lives, I have to reach for a Kleenex! Right now, for example, I’m thinking of a young man in London whose observant, wry, and increasingly melancholy posts I’d read for several years, and about how happy I was when a post showed up in my inbox after a six-month silence that ended with “Apart from that, and the fact that I actually married the world’s most perfect woman, I can’t say anything of importance has happened.” 🙂  So I have him to thank for reminding me that despite the apparently real British need for understatement, life sometimes delivers happy endings. And for this song, from one of his earlier posts: “Even if you, like me, have no idea what it’s all about, I still guarantee that you’ll feel at least, ooohh, 2% happier after listening.” (Click if you need another 2%, or if you’re worried about the fate of the younger generation.)

I have the blogging world to thank for the miracle of connection without borders or intermediaries, and for the ability to offer aid or insight without the preliminaries and reciprocation that in-person interactions require. If I’m too buried to even sleep, let alone blog—as I have been for the past couple of years—I don’t have to explain that to anyone, or feel guilty about not holding up my end of a relationship, or beat myself up for failure to perform. The blogging world that I inhabit is the antithesis of “platform” mentality, and instead of making me feel like a captive of conventional advice, it has provided me with an antidote.

In this writers’ medium people understand long absences, emotional interference, financial exigency, physical limitations, and other constraints on how we roll. Yet our work here persists over time as opposed to being shredded after ten days on a bookstore shelf, and it exists in a searchable world not confined to amazon.com. In this medium we can find and be found by our real family—or, in writerly terms, our audience. Even more important, this medium is amenable to deep, ongoing conversations, which makes it more like telling stories around the tribal fire than conventional publication, which isolates writers from readers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to get our work published or look for ways to make money at it; I’m just saying that we’re free to be completely happy as writers right now, and that I’m grateful for the ability to share things that matter to me without anyone’s stamp of approval and at no cost.

That’s a pretty good deal for the money.

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Home

You would think that an epiphany would last, since the moment itself is defined by clarity—like a high resolution photo in a blurry world—and a sense of significance so profound that time and space may feel altered. But for me, the most important realizations—those unanesthetized moments in which I wake up to what really matters—seem also to be ephemeral, at odds with the inertia of ordinary life, work, and responsibility that can so easily swallow us up.

When I was in my early thirties, I moved with my husband and our newborn son to a remote property in western Oregon where we planned to build a house—a new endeavor that was not beyond the scope of that good man’s considerable skills, because in a long career that involved everything from blacksmithing to machining parts for the space shuttle, he’d built a lot of things. I was his apprentice in construction, and in life, being much younger than he was, and very much in love.

I had never been north of San Francisco, so when we first drove into the dense tangle of Oregon rainforest, it seemed otherworldly, a lush wilderness I had only imagined in fairy tales. We turned right from a two-lane highway onto a trestle bridge, then left onto a narrow gravel road that ran along the Siuslaw River, a shining jade ribbon trimmed with lacy rapids, pulled down tight into the crevasse of a steep, forested canyon. The cliff on our right overhung the road in places, netted tight with a wonderful profusion of pine green and chartreuse that shimmered in the sun; blackberries dripped from tangled vines, and every hundred feet or so there was a creek, or a little waterfall cascading right down the rock face. As we went on, the road narrowed, hugging the cliff, and began to seem more like an animal trail. Deer stood in the road in the middle of the day.

It was fantastic, and yet as we approached the dilapidated old house where we would live while building the new one, I also felt the kind of premonition that defines a fairy tale: the sunny glades, the murmuring stream, the almond honey cakes made by elves in magic cloaks, even the prince and his splendid castle next the enchanted forest—all serve only to suggest the unseen presence of some terrible lurking giant.

Even so, right next to that premonition in my memory lives an image of my husband that still brings a smile. He always liked to wear an old hat when he worked that was cut like a baseball cap, though he’d never had anything to do with sports; it was made of tan, narrow-wale corduroy with a red cotton liner. He wore it backwards, so the bill would be out of the way, and though he had taken good care of it, over the years it had become stained with sweat from his forehead, so there was a dark brown dome in the corduroy. As we worked on building the new house and summer stretched into winter and back again, I watched him snug that cap down every morning as we got ready to go to work. His predictability made me happy, as did his smile, spontaneous and genuine as a child’s, even though his hair was starting to go grey.

He taught me things like how to use a level, how to drill a straight hole by sighting in two dimensions, and how to set a nail without leaving hammer marks, all of which had deep psychological and moral implications. There was nothing fancy about the house he laid out, but it was built to last. It had three-foot eaves to protect the cedar siding; the roof was steep enough to shed snow, but not too steep to walk on; the pipes were copper, and the insulation well above code.

We worked hard, which involved a fair amount of discomfort and sacrifice. While we put together the plumbing system, for instance, our son Jay—still in a baby backpack—took his naps in the crawlspace under the house, with my jacket for a pillow on one of the concrete pads. We hauled a six-hundred gallon water tank up the canyon behind the house to the spring using a complicated arrangement of ropes and pulleys, with me carrying Jay on my back. Before we put it in place, we spent a week or two preparing the site—an ordinary man would have just hauled it up there and hooked up the pipes, but my husband wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have problems with it later. So we used pry bars to dig out every rock that might eventually, with the settling factor and all, poke into the bottom of the plastic tank and possibly weaken it. Then we tamped dirt back into the holes, waited for it to settle, and tamped in some more. We canted the ground to discourage erosion, added a layer of sand to smooth out any irregularities we might have missed, and laid black plastic over it all to keep it stable under the filigree of alders shading the creek, and the huge old firs clawed to the canyon walls so that their canopy closed the sky.

One day—this is where the epiphany comes in—as I was on my way back down the canyon, I stopped to rest for a minute and put Jay, who was just learning to walk, down off my back. As we stood there by a bend in the creek where a fallen tree made a natural dam, we saw a salmon as big as my forearm curling around itself in one of the little rocky, shaded side pools, as if to catch her breath. The salmon looked up at us, and I wondered how we appeared to her from the other side of that glassy surface beneath which she waited to lay her eggs, or to die. Jay, even as young as he was, seemed to be taken into the stillness of this moment, and we stood there holding hands as if we were the same age—or as if age didn’t matter.

As time slowed down and the light intensified, as it does in such moments, the elements of the scene became almost holographic. You know how dry stones that appear common in the sun of everyday life suddenly roil with glorious color when they’re immersed in water? It’s like that in these moments when we find ourselves so fully immersed in the present that we also intuitively grasp the past and future that it implies.

I wonder now if what was driving my husband while we built that house was some knowledge in the body of what was about to befall him, some built-in sense of a long, personal winter approaching that made him oblivious to the less pressing needs of making our current life pleasant. He didn’t drive me, ever—but he drove himself, and as Jay and I tried to keep up, I noticed I was always telling myself that life would be better when… when we got the roof on, when we had electricity in the house, when the drywall was up… —and that when never came.

I knew suddenly, as that salmon and I locked eyes, that life would never be any better than it was right now.

As revelations go, the idea that we should live in the present, or stop to smell the roses because life is short, isn’t anything new—and as a child of the sixties, I’d been exposed to even more than the usual cliché versions of it, everything from Alan Watts’ interpretation of Zen Buddhism to Janis Joplin singing “Get It While You Can.” But the thing about epiphanies is that they happen to you. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing new under the sun—what matters is the moment that you become aware of some piece of truth.

So the next day, I took Jay down to the river instead of going to work at the house, and we splashed and played and looked at crawdads and ate peanut butter sandwiches in the sun. There was a special place where, in summer, when the river was low, you could walk out to the middle of it on a big, smooth, rocky flat where the water was either rushing cold and clear in deep channels into which you could dangle your feet, or lying about in warm, mossy pools filled with tiny fish. I rolled up the legs of my overalls and, for the first time in a long while, we enjoyed ourselves.

When we got home, I told my husband that I was going to do that more, and he smiled and said, “Fine. That’s a fine thing to do.”

Later that year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and during the seven years that followed, as well as the decades that followed his death in 1988, I have had many occasions to remember, and to reach again, for the kind of insight that gave our son a childhood even while I took him by the hand into the long work of building a future without his father.

But I think the more important lesson is not the content of any particular moment of insight. Like Dorothy in Oz, the world of our human journey—no matter how vivid the adventure, how terrifying the dangers, how sweet the rewards—isn’t the only world we have access to. Revelations occur when we need something beyond the limitations of what we know, beyond our uninformed personal agenda, beyond what we think we’re capable of; they occur when we reach for home.

Note: thanks to Tom Titus, whose description  of collecting agates on the beach and “the little clink that each stone makes when it lands in an old canning jar” reminded me that I’d once written something about stones immersed in water. When I searched my computer for those words, I found this piece that I had put together years ago and then just forgotten about. I decided to post it since I’m pretty sure Tom and I aren’t the only ones who have looked at rocks closely enough to see them as a metaphor worth saving.

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About memoir

The best writing in any genre is an act of love, not explanation or even insight, not contrition or justice—and surely not reprisal.

Such an act doesn’t require thematic justification or any other reason for being, so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to pitch it. Love doesn’t need a tag line or an elevator speech: it just needs to be real. That’s not to say it’s easy—loving this beautiful, brutal world or anyone in it so much that you have to draw their precious outline on a page can be consuming, even desperate, and if unrequited for one reason or another (the need for a day job, the interference of people who need us, the barriers of anxiety and doubt), we pine and wither.

And then, often, we get subverted into thinking that we need to write about ourselves. After all—isn’t that what memoir is supposed to be about? Isn’t memoir by its very nature all about us? Our memories, our lives, our trials and woes and joys and transformations?

I don’t think so.

Not really.

That capital I, so unavoidable in memoir, stands up tall only in witness, not to dominate the text or claim singular importance, but rather to testify: to honor what the writer has seen, to obey love’s imperative to cherish and also set free the people we have cared about–including those who did not, or could not, reciprocate.

Memoir is sometimes an elegy of love that allows us at last to touch those who eluded our reach in life, to hold them steady in the light while they rage, to return compassion for ignorance and fear, to warm them inside our coats until they thaw, revealing hearts that beat like our own. And sometimes, of course, memoir is the best chance we have at paying tribute to those who held us under their coats next to their generous hearts, and to keep gratitude alive in this unforgiving world.

So if you struggle with the “I” in memoir, if you think that you’re supposed to be writing about yourself and thus need to make your story sound, somehow, important enough to warrant a book—relax.

Memoir isn’t really about you at all.

 

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What writers do

We bear the weight of humanity’s stories, compressed and carbonized over time by their sheer mass, transformed into potential energy that smolders like an ember in the heart, a live coal with the possibility of shedding light in a darkened world—but also hot as hell and hard to handle.

Is it any wonder we sometimes seem a little strange, out of the social loop, unable to interact like normal people, distracted, preoccupied—maybe even completely crazy?

We are conscripted—by nature, I guess—and tasked with carrying both the burden of our mutual history and the vision of our possible futures.

Like it or not, we notice things. We care about them inordinately. We need to understand what is beyond belief, to explain—or at least to record—the astonishing range of human behavior, including our own.

At our best, we transcend our limited and troubled selves when we embrace the danger of the task and, despite the risk of being burned, breathe the ember to life.

Maybe we should go a little bit easier on ourselves.

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The Feel Better Book: what to do when you feel overwhelmed

First, resist the impulse to make a list. Well, okay —maybe you have to make one list, just to get some illusion of control. But not two, or three, or four, ordered by importance, and definitely not a rewrite of any list in an effort to organize it better by using highlighter or red felt pen.

(Obviously, there’s a little projection going on here. But maybe you have similar tendencies? In which case, read on.)

Forget about the lists. Admit you simply have too much to do, because unfortunately, you’re only one human being. Give up trying to change that, to be better, or at least good enough, to keep up with successful people whose lives look organized, doable, under control, admirable.

You’re not one of them, possibly because you care too much about too many things, because you focus on what should be done instead of what can be done, because you think about what people need instead of what you want. So really, it’s not all bad in the big scheme of things; at least you have good motives. Or maybe, like me, you just screwed up your earlier life, so now there’s hell to pay. Still. Either way, let’s just admit it: our kind of list is overwhelming.

So stop thinking about it, for just a few minutes. (God knows, it will still be there later.)

Resist the impulse to crawl in bed unless you really need a nap, in which case, take one. (If you find yourself dreaming about the things on The List, though, realize that’s a sign that you really need to try something different!)

Don’t resist the impulse to cry, because that means you will have to find a Kleenex, which will get you up and moving.

Just get out of the chair and start walking around, doing stuff at random—it doesn’t matter what: walk down the hall, find the Kleenex, eat a carrot, gather up one bag of trash, put a new light bulb in the fixture that’s been out for six months. Wash one dirty dish. It doesn’t matter what you do: just keep moving. Sort one pile of paper into bills and junk mail. If you find a real letter in there, rejoice at the miracle and answer it. Brush your teeth. Go open the door and stare outside for the first time in weeks. Vacuum one room and leave the vacuum there.

Don’t finish anything. Don’t stay too long in one place. Just keep moving.

I’m convinced that this is the only distinguishing characteristic of people who accomplish stuff: They may be overly responsible deep thinkers and worriers too; the difference is that they Just Keep Moving.

Try it. I just did, and not only does my house feel a little less like a landfill, the list got shorter while I wasn’t obsessing about its length. Also, between the bag of trash and the light bulb, I took time to write something on this blog for the first time in months, and thus have made a start on one of the book projects I’ve had on my back burner to-do list for several years: The Feel Better Book. I know there’s an audience for this title.

But I’m resisting the impulse to move it to a front burner list: I’m going to keep moving, taking care of whatever I find in my path, knowing that I’m at least doing something, trusting that in the big picture, the good will prevail even if I’m off duty.

Grace, after all, is a gift—not something we can acquire like an item on a grocery list, nor can we extend it to others by pursuing a chore list, no matter how well thought out or correct that list might be.

Maybe what we really need to do isn’t even on the list. Maybe it’s waiting to be discovered, somewhere down the hall.

Just keep moving, and keep looking. I know it makes me feel better, whenever I remember to do it.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Perfectionism, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Right here, right now

Faith is a choice we can make, like recovering addicts, one day at a time. There is no evidence of what’s ahead, only the certainty of what we leave behind: the deficiencies of selfishness, fear’s corrosion of body and soul, the ultimate monotony of evil.

Faith is a decision to live as if God exists—without the coercion of heaven or hell, without proof, without even hope, really.

Faith is rather an act of love, a choice to reach for the good and to wait for it, even when we must do so blindly in this dark, deceptive world—even if there turns out to be no such thing.

When we have said no to all the imposters, with their accusations and their evidence and their rule-bound, shriveled hearts, faith is what remains: a longing for something beyond what we already know, for a world in which entropy is reversed, where life strains toward conscience like plants toward the sun, where meaning can be infused into matter.

In recovery, they say just “do the next right thing.” How does an addict in an evil world even know what that is—and yet we do, don’t we, even if the next right thing is as limited as saying no to the next wrong thing.

Or to the next wrong idea about ourselves, or the next wrong belief that our society or culture or institutions or family—or our internalized versions of them—offer up. The thing about deception is that no matter how sophisticated the presentation may be, it is detectable upon closer examination: it always smells a little off, like it’s made some kind of toxic plastic, no matter how good the paint job on the surface.

It’s all about sniffing out the motive, and deception’s motive is predatory. We can learn to identify predatory people or ideas by paying attention to our instincts—even when the predator lives in our own heads. Ask yourself: Where is this line of thinking taking me? If you realize that you’re being clubbed and dragged into some isolated emotional corner where only fear awaits, you can simply choose not to go. That’s the beauty of the truth: when its light shines on deception, you realize that the power of the adversary’s illusion depends on your buying it.

Unlike real predators, deception can’t close its teeth around you once you realize they are just phantom teeth. It can’t own you if you don’t marry it, if you make a choice to wait for something better, something you can wholeheartedly give yourself to because it never tries to drag you anywhere.

Faith is something we choose by rejecting the predator whenever we recognize where it’s taking us. Even when we are mobbed by fearful thoughts, judgment, and self-blame—even when we can see no way out, and even when there is no way out of some hard fate in reality—we can still choose what we love, what we hold to and hold out for. To be disappointed or betrayed, to lose faith or feel abandoned, is impossible when you make such a choice; love asks nothing back, needs no reward, doesn’t bargain for reciprocity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we always feel secure, at peace, calm, wise, enlightened, or even happy. Predators and threats abound, and for the faithful romantics among us, who aren’t asking for a ring and a date in heaven, or even thinking about any kind of life other than what we have here and now, the future can look pretty grim.

But what’s ahead doesn’t matter: faith is choosing not to go back.

What’s continually amazing to me is that every time I make that choice—which is often many times a day—I realize again that I am loved: right here, right now.

It’s the kind of love you breathe in, an intangible drawn into the world through a portal that your love unlocks, the kind of love that resurrects a vision of some home you haven’t yet seen, and shows you how to make it real: right here, right now.

Posted in Faith, Identity, Love, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Silenced

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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Ridiculous

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.

Posted in Faith, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

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:
obvious
shallow
arrogant
new-age drivel,
obvious AND shallow
self-important
self-absorbed
religious foolishness
too twisted to follow
or to care about,
not engaging,
Proustian, but only in a bad way,
boring
obvious
unnecessarily complicated, because it’s
obvious,
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.

Posted in Education, Identity, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

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

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.

Naturally.

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

Productivity

Has anybody noticed that as corporate productivity goes up, customer productivity goes down?  Can we get that on the record in the great balance sheet in the sky, along with other calculations of the real costs of doing business, like carbon footprints and toxic waste?

I’m talking about how many hours it takes on the phone with “customer service” just to get to the point where you finally have not only a human being on the other end of the line, but a Level 2 Tech, that mythical wizard behind the curtain who understands your issue but who can’t give out a direct phone number, and who puts you on hold until your call gets dropped. This is where much of my time goes when I’m not working—trying to fix  something that some company has screwed up. I have spent as much as two hours on one phone call, waiting to get to that Level 2 Tech so that I can start all over again. I’m sure you have too.

Then there’s the extra level of irony that while we’re hung up on hold, the profits of “productivity,” in the form of corporate wealth and outrageous executive salaries, are being spent on buying nutcase politicians who are going to make our lives even more miserable with plans like denying birth control to women, denying climate change as the world self-immolates, outlawing critical thinking (see the platform of the Texas Republican party), and projecting their psychopathology onto the poor—who are poor, they think, because they just want to be leeches on society.

In a conspiracy theory interpretation, it feels like a diabolically productive initiative to keep us busy and distracted while they finish us off, demolishing voting rights for poor people, students, minorities and old folks, so as to emasculate the inconvenience of democracy; outsourcing what’s left of our jobs; killing off the few unions that remain; shredding the social safety net; and completing Orwell’s vision: Please hold. Your call is very important to us.

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Repetition

Sometimes my kids just hold up fingers to signal how many times I’ve told them that. They are grown men and sensitive souls, so they don’t intend offense. Most of our conversations are sporadic, minimal, our vocabulary as distinct as the difference between, say, English and Korean—except that, having grown up in the modern world, they understand English perfectly, whereas I’m lost in the sea of acronyms and references that separates us.

They talk to each other—repetitively, I might add—and tell me, convincingly, that they love me. When they’re really hurting, they spell it all out to me eventually, and to no one else, so I know there is a bridge across the chasm of age that separates us. But it’s a bit like the conversational equivalent of a one-way mirror.

There are so many things I want to say to them, but it would just be shouting against the wind across the void of time. They don’t want to hear it, don’t need to hear it, probably can’t and even shouldn’t hear it—so I’m stuck with banalities, and nagging warnings about ridiculously outdated concerns.

Maybe that’s why I keep having to repeat myself–not because my memory is failing, but because I keep feeling the impulse to reach back across time to give them something I know, something I’ve seen, some consolation they may not even need yet–but will need, oh yes.

Maybe old people gradually go silent because we finally accept that insight must be hard and singly won, that the key can only fit when the lock is discovered, when necessity drives—that the young will find their way, even as we must move forward, feeling our own way into the snowstorm of the unknown.

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Performance

I had a job interview yesterday. The only good thing about it was that I can tell myself this is the last one I’ll ever have to go through–not because I got the job but because at my age and with my resume, full-time employment opportunities are as rare as wise decisions were during most of my life, when I was compiling that resume (I have many years of expertise in the world of alcoholic character actors, and cult leaders, for example–not exactly marketable skills).

Oh my God. It was horrible, even though a rational person would probably say I did fine. And even when it was over, I had this mental slime residue I couldn’t get rid of–all the things I shouldn’t have said, or the things I should have said, or the part when my mouth went obviously dry during the teaching demo (let me demonstrate what a panic attack looks like), the part when I couldn’t download the file properly or even work the light switch, the fact that time ran out when I wasn’t even close to being done, the way I managed to put my boss on the spot, the way nothing I said even made sense.

Oh my God.

All of you people out there who promised to pray for me–WTF??!?  Was the cell tower to God out of range? Because intermittently, I did seem to get hooked up to something that mattered–but then it was like, hello? Hello? Can you hear me now? How about if I move over here? It’s……not…….working…….Hello? God? Anybody?

Jesus! (He was asleep in the back of the boat, snoring.)

The worst part is this aftermath; it’s like compulsive instant replay of the move that lost the World Cup on a penalty kick: the goalee sees the ball coming a little too late, she jumps and reaches, but it sails over her head. Again and again.

Failure to perform.

Naturally, one obsesses: but is it always this excruciating? Do other people want to blow their brains out if only to shut them down? Or drink a fifth of whiskey? Or spend over two hours watching Snow White and the Huntsman? That was the method of oblivion I opted for, which turned out to be just a metaphorical replay of my interview, in which a perfectly good fairy tale devolved helplessly into a slow-motion fiasco: Really? Seriously? Fairies that look like Gollum, and a cartoon deer?

Even my escape was second-rate! A real writing teacher would have gone for the Jack, not a Skinny Girl margarita and a chick flick. So now I get a meta-level beat down from my crowd of inner critics, who, through long work in therapy, had been won over as fans or at least convinced to tone down the criticism, until this interview–I had won their respect, but then I disappointed them and now I…

Oh my God: shut UP!!!

It’s not even about whether I get the job. It’s all about punishing myself for not performing perfectly. I know I’m not the only one who does this, and I know I do it all the time–not just in high-stakes events like a job interview.

Reassurance is not a cure.

Success is not a cure.

Screaming, on the other hand, helped—and this was a revelation: on the way home from the movie, I realized I was alone in my closed-up car, winding through an unpopulated area at high speed, so I tried it. I believe it’s the first time in my life that I’ve actually screamed, so I had to experiment—but it didn’t take long for my first wimpy effort to accelerate into a throat-scarring banshee wail that sounded like an ice pick driven into my ear—followed by blissful, complete, mental silence.

Wow. I’m good at screaming. Maybe I could get hired somewhere to demonstrate this.

And now, with the whole thing receding into some reasonable mental space, no larger than it deserves, I’m thinking maybe those prayers worked after all: maybe what I needed was to give voice not to the perfect interview, but to a lifetime of perfect, desperate rage. I mean, think about it: sixty-five years old, and I had never screamed. Maybe God wanted to hear my voice, because I think it might have been loud enough to reach, wherever he is–loud enough to wake Jesus up in the back seat, because suddenly there was silence and the mental storm ceased, just like when those guys in the boat woke him up and he calmed the waters and asked them where their faith was.

Maybe some version of the next miracles he performed will also follow: freedom from the compulsion to cut oneself with stones, freedom from long and mysterious bleeding out, freedom from the lifetime nightmare of being misunderstood and misjudged, which is the trauma that seems to give rise to this whole thing. As in that last miracle—when Jesus woke up the little girl who was supposedly dead—the people who raised me thought I was dead, maybe because they had worked so hard to kill me, and in subsequent roles over the course of a lifetime I had been cast as the silent good girl, or the victim lying flayed open on the table in some real-life version of CSI.

But it turns out I was just asleep. The first thing I did when I woke up was to scream, like anyone would upon having her chest wall slit and peeled back to expose the heart to being measured, weighed, analyzed and rated. That’s what it felt like every time I was sent to a different home, a different family, when I was a child. My life was on the line if I failed to perform, and screaming was not an option.

Now, though, it’s apparently a whole new world—and in a weird synchronicity, I notice, today is also Independence Day where I live. God only knows what will come out of my mouth next.

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Ode to the American Middle Class

They came home from the War and bought a house

on the GI bill. They suffered silently, drank heavily,

and could afford to. They revered FDR, and

liked Ike. They starched and ironed, showed up

for work, and raised us for better or worse.

They were union, and patriots, working the line

because the battle was over, the future secure.

They should rest in peace, but my mother rolls

in her grave, blindsided and betrayed,

while my father hoists one in heaven

to the good old days.

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Art

Another young man with a guitar wakes me up to life before

it’s too late, even in a sports bar designed to deaden

the senses and numb everything but the possibility of

getting laid as compensation. I know he’s an artist

from the first note, which seizes the airspace

nonchalantly, without hesitation, like a predator

unaware of its instinctual grace. Paradoxically, the artist

in me resurrects, even though his landscape is different,

his medium words that lunge freely in space

while mine must trudge across a page—

Still.

He reminds me that I can walk, that movement is possible, that

freedom lives when we claim it. He offers up

a piece of his weightless soul as antidote to

sterile science, to determinism, to the machine

without a ghost, in which I’ve been held captive.

“I’m on a ro-oh-oh-oll,” he howls, voice scorching the air

like a flamethrower, eyes tight shut. He doesn’t care

that there’s no audience,

no accompaniment, no

reimbursement, no

justification, no

proof.

He’s on a roll.

Posted in Creativity, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Your blank page

In the Department of Reframing, I offer this simple fix for writer’s block: instead of thinking of writing as having to face The Blank Page, as so many people do, start calling it your blank page. Simply switching to the possessive shifts ownership of the page back you, where it belongs, and when something belongs to you, there is a whole lot more freedom about what you do with it. Continue reading

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Gratitude

Gratitude is like an eagle—endangered, hard to spot, so lofty it can seem out of reach, beyond us humans stuck to earth where we survive by fitness or fear, in hiding either way, hunkered down in our mud holes, trapped by necessity, desolation, poverty, or cruel circumstance.

The eagle as totem animal flies between two worlds, between spirit and flesh. It sees us, even when we fail to look up, and sometimes—taking interest in or pity on us—it swoops down and hangs on an updraft beside us, looking in a kitchen window until we notice it, stop still, and feel its power in our own hearts. Continue reading

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Thankfulness

I have a problem with thankfulness—if you’re a regular reader, I don’t suppose that surprises you. I’m the same person who also has a problem with prayer, forgiveness, and positive thinking. And I still think of myself as a Christian—as my Texas grandmother would say: Lordy, lordy!

Well, okay—someone who’s writing a book called Living with Faith, without Religion is obviously not a conventional Christian, but then the religion’s namesake wasn’t exactly conventional either. Anne Lamott calls herself a Christian, as does Marilynne Robinson, so I feel like I’m in pretty good literary company—why should the right-wing crazies own the label? Of course I have a problem with labels too, but I’ve decided to wear this one rather than be silent while it’s used as a bludgeon by people who are moved by fear and hatred rather than grace. Christ would be rolling over in his grave if he hadn’t resurrected. Continue reading

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Why everyone is depressed as hell

It’s not vitamin D deficiency, or lack of exercise, or even the frenetic stress of our unnatural modern lives inflicted on bodies shaped by two hundred and fifty thousand years of adaptation to preindustrial circumstance.

It’s the numbers.

Human resilience translates pretty well from one kind of physical stress to another: enough of us survive predators—whether their teeth are sunk into our flesh or our bank accounts—to replace ourselves. Fight or flight still works. Cunning and altruism still vie for genetic dominance, and there is nothing really new under the sun in terms of human behavior since Ecclesiastes—except the numbers. Continue reading

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Strange, and satisfying, bedfellows

I am turning sixty-five tomorrow, thus becoming officially old and disinhibited, with any psychiatric care I may need paid for by Medicare—so I am going to just go ahead and say what a lot of us have been thinking for a long time: lovers are overrated.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having one, especially for an afternoon fling or at an out-of-town conference, or—if you’re still as agile as you used to be and arthritis isn’t an issue—in the back seat or on the office floor. But for long-term companionship in bed, nothing beats pillows. Continue reading

Posted in Aging, Love | Tagged , , , , | 34 Comments

Promise

In response to a post by Kate Shrewsday, which you can read here.

A few weeks ago, the Giant Despair was making one of his regular appearances in my life. I saw myself as a prodigal daughter who had worked her way home, living just outside the good father’s gate: close enough for protection, but still subject to harassment, taunting, worry and gloom—a stranger still having to glean in the fields of happiness, like Ruth under Boaz’ protection. A prodigal, after all, can’t expect or ask for everything. A prodigal knows how lucky she is to have even found her way to the gate, and she doesn’t complain about having to work hard at serenity. It’s honest work, and she’s glad to have it. But there are often tears involved, and what might be mistaken for despair by someone who doesn’t know her history. Continue reading

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Prayer

Last time, I tried—unsuccessfully, I think—to talk about what I call home: it’s that intangible place, beyond or inside this inadequate world, where I feel like I really belong. I am sometimes far away from home, sometimes right there. I recognize certain people as being what I think of as “from home,” and others who would like to find their way there. Once in a while, someone’s yearning for home seems to create a rift in ordinary time and space; the light changes in such moments, and I get shaky as I reach beyond myself for what’s needed, like a test pilot in a plane that’s being pushed to its limits. Maybe that’s what George Fox and the early Quakers were up to when they trembled at the word of the Lord.

If home is where we belong—and I’m speaking now to fellow pilgrims and sojourners in this strange land—then prayer is how we remember it, the spiritual equivalent of clicking the ruby slippers together. It’s the act of stopping whatever we’ve been doing, and wishing to be back in touch with what we really love, with what really matters, with what we hope for. It’s a choice to disengage from worry or fear, despair or blame, meaningless struggle or avoidance, and to make ourselves thus available for something better. Continue reading

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Home: there are some places like it

When I was a child, home was a ditch overgrown with weeds, a good three hundred feet from the house in Marshall, Texas, where I had been sent to live with relatives. I was not an adventurous child, so the fact that I found this ditch and spent so much time in it that it’s numinous in memory, will tell you something about what went on in the house. This would have been 1953 or thereabouts, in the segregated South, and even as a five-year-old white child, I knew that something was terribly wrong, and that the people who were in charge of me were at fault, and didn’t care. The whole world was about to bust open; it felt like we were living inside the body of God, and he was getting ready to roll over. Lightning was always about to strike, and when it did, it was like his veins suddenly made visible, lighting up so we could see what we were surrounded by, and when a bolt hit closer, it looked like the aorta of a heart so big that its beating sound had to squeeze itself into thunder for release. Continue reading

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Forgiveness

After successfully avoiding my ex-husband for the last several years, I nearly ran into him the other day in—of all places—the liquor store, where I had stopped to buy some cold diet tonic water. Snapshot moment of panic and humiliation with regard to said ex:

I go in and head straight for the fridge, snag two bottles of Schweppes, and pivot for the register. I notice someone coming toward me from the back of the store; we are both going for the check-out from opposite directions, and my limbic brain automatically and mindlessly sizes him up: There’s a nice looking old man, it thinks, and then my consciousness catches up. Continue reading

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Self-doubt

Let’s get the doubts out of the way first (because of course as I write this, I am doubting its validity, thinking who am I to be making pronouncements about life, having thoroughly bunged up my own early on, having betrayed at least two good people, having squandered my inheritance with prodigal willfulness; I am mentally running through all the ways in which it seems that self-doubt must actually be good, at least sometimes, because had I doubted myself when I was screwing things up, surely that would have been smarter than advocating against self-doubt, as I am about to do).

So yeah, let’s get that out of the way.

What I should have been doubting while I was screwing things up in my life was the opposite of self: I should have been doubting the adversary’s slick cover story, the broken-wing appeal, the promise of a happy ending, the appeal to my pride and its shadow twin, shame. Continue reading

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Creativity

I started this blog by writing about my impulse to drive without a seatbelt, and now, a year later, I’m revisiting that as a metaphor. What does that image suggest, other than stupidity and recklessness? If I take my own advice about trusting what the subconscious offers up, here’s what I discover:

When a responsible person chooses not to buckle up, she is choosing to pay much better attention; she is choosing to recognize that life—her own and others’—is always on the line; she is choosing to be a better observer, a more present participant; she is choosing to rely on her own instincts rather than some manufactured restraint; she is choosing to break the rules, to forgo the illusion of safety, to exit the Matrix.

With such a powerful metaphor, you’d think I’d have gone further by now than driving home from the market. And maybe I have—I do find myself feeling unsettled, changed in some deep way, since I started doing this. Continue reading

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Self-punishment, part 2: taking the fall

When you take the fall, they can’t lose the fight–and if the people you love aren’t losers, there’s still a chance they might give you what you need. They are still in the ring, reputation intact. You have thrown the fight, betrayed yourself rather than them, because if you had hit back you might have scored a knockout, and then where would you be? Continue reading

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Self-punishment

If you do it first, they can’t do it to you: they can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, or hurt you any more than you have already hurt yourself. If you do it, you can do it right: you can make a list longer than they would ever have thought of, so there is no possible way they can come up with something new, some unguarded fleshy spot into which they can slip the knife. If you do it yourself, everything is scar tissue, tough as rope you have already hung yourself with in every possible way.

However: you are not dead, even if you plan to be soon. You have kept control of the weapons by wielding them; you have protected your vulnerable, soft, hopeful self by chaining it to a wall in a cell so deep that even the guards never go down there. Meanwhile, in the above-ground world, you pursue a tough-guy program of slash and burn. Continue reading

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Positive thinking

I woke up this morning just before dawn as the skies lost their grip on repression and gave in to a pouring rain as steady, even and pervasive as holding it all in had been up until the tipping point, which seemed both inevitable and mysterious, like its psychological equivalent.

I am not a morning person, although today I see why some people are—there’s an inherent promise in daybreak, and a kind of prayer in the silence and solitude of it, as if the universe is awake before its children, standing in the doorway between past and future, taking a deep breath. Continue reading

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How to save the world

Special bonus this month in response to Val’s comment on the thing I wrote in May about judgment: Tell an INFJ she epitomizes the kind of person who can save the world, and here’s what happens: she will come up with a how-to list, just like the one she produces when grocery shopping, or prioritizing home repairs. Continue reading

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Inertia

When I heard that Ratko Mladic was finally captured and is under indictment in the Hague for war crimes along with his “supreme commander” Radovan Karadzic, captured in 2008, I decided to reprise this essay, a version of which I delivered at a University of Oregon writers’ conference nearly sixteen years ago. The task, as I see it—for writers, for women, and for every human being with a conscience—is still the same.

July 1995, after the fall of Srebrenica

The Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan writes an essay titled “Literature and War” in which he blames the aesthetic of indifference in modern literature for the destruction of his country. Continue reading

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Judgment

A note in my inbox  from an old friend and client prompted me to finally get this piece about judgment posted. She said that recently she’d been “hot writing instead of making every sentence ‘perfect'” and that reading my blog was “a good reminder that I must let the walls down before I’m so old I don’t know what those crumbling walls were supposed to do, or even why I ever cared.”

Yes indeed.

It helps to realize that judgment–the builder of those prison walls–is a killer, and that like any skilled assassin, it can take you down in a variety of ways. Continue reading

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Preparations

When the 1971 L.A. earthquake hit at 6:00  in the morning, I was getting ready to go to work. I had started the shower running and was, I think, looking for something to wear, when the world came off its foundation. While other, more sensible people ran into the streets for safety or positioned themselves in doorways to avoid debris, while my brick chimney came apart and my books flew to the floor, I ran to the bathroom to shut off the water so that it wouldn’t make a mess.

I was only twenty-four at the time, yet I can see it was a metaphor that foreshadowed how I would handle every crisis—most recently, for example, the calamity of old age. Continue reading

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Veterans Day

When things get really hard, I go out to my husband’s grave. That would be the good one–not the guitar player, or the actor, or the narcissist–but the one who was a father to me, something I had missed out on until I met him. Continue reading

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Trusting the subconscious

In case anyone was wondering, or expecting me to pull up this thematic thread, I no longer have the impulse to drive without my seatbelt. So apparently the risk I needed to take was unrelated to driving, except in a metaphoric sense. Taking the risk of starting a blog–of putting myself out there, in traffic and unprotected–seems to have entirely satisfied whatever tiny wild-and-crazy weed managed to grow up through the cracks of my sober Norwegian soul.

Which brings me to the writerly promise I made that this blog would be, in part, about trusting the subconscious. How the heck do you even know what your subconscious is trying to tell you, let alone whether you should go for it? After all, isn’t the subconscious kind of dangerous? Isn’t it dark, and instinctive, and repressed for damn good reason? Continue reading

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Perfectionism

Okay, so you read the title of this blog and maybe you thought, what the hell does that mean—or, if you are a writer: that title is WAY too long, and way too literary to ever sell. Or maybe you just thought it sounded defeatist, and therefore wrong—we all know that we’re never supposed to give up. I had those reactions myself, to my own title. So what was I thinking, to lead with it!

Maybe, like me,  you also had an undercurrent ripple in your subconscious, programmed in grade school, that to lower your expectations is not only wrong, but vaguely unpatriotic. Continue reading

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Leverage

I live close to the market, down a few blocks of mostly-gravel road, the less-traveled-by kind, and lately I’ve had a rebellious impulse to not put on my seat belt for the short ride home. I’m normally the best of good girls, meticulous about protocol and rules and conscience, and a rational person well aware of how stupid this impulse is.

But it reoccurs, and occasionally I give in. Continue reading

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