Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Time is on our side

March 11, 2018

I met Jean my last year in undergrad.  A core group were taking both the Virginia Woolf and the honors literary criticism seminars, so in the natural way young people do (and older people don’t), we fell in together.

Jean’s mind moves like a computer except she’s working with one or two more dimensions, making her mental loops fluid and fascinating.  Add to this her urban upbringing and her spot-on taste, and even a myopic magoo like me was intimidated.  After we graduated, that she’d been biding her time awaiting her reunion with better company was obvious.  We stayed in touch mostly due to my persistent letter-writing, until I found what I thought were my own people, ex-husband-to-be included.

Fast-forward some twenty odd years, and I’m wondering if I can find her on the internet, a do-hickey that was still in its university swaddling clothes when we’d last signed off.  And there she was.  Reconnecting with her was one of the shining lights of a 2017 where fog enshrouded and eroded much of what I’d thought was happening (aka, my reality).

Besides the advantage of the internet, we now also had cheaper long distance, so we were able to catch up in some small measure.  My lack of discernible progress in the material world ceased to embarrass me when she shared her own dissatisfactions.  We began to share strategies and insights, dream interpretations, youtube links, and photos.  As other friends had dropped away, retrieving Jean from the past was a timely gift.

The distance and difference between us, however, remained.  She had jumped from San Francisco to NYC to LA to Paris to Austin and back to the Bay Area, while my wanderings had taken me to places like Southern Utah, Yellowstone, New Mexico, and the Northern Neck of Virginia.  I don’t think she could conceive of why I would chose to live in these spots.  Helping me sort out my vision for the future, she offered a provocative comment:  “I think you’re avoiding something  because you think you’ll get contaminated by it.”  The assessment sounded right to me, but she thought I’d done the calculations wrong.

I was taking time to ponder the merits of this critique when she sent me a link.  “Great job for you,” she e-mailed.  The title did sound intriguing:  “Narrative strategist.”

Since I’d welcomed Jean’s earlier commands, like the latest version of What Color Is Your Parachute, as good structuring exercises, I read through the description with as much open-mindedness as I could muster, no easy task after the fifth sentence which touted serving clients like Facebook and Google and other “global change-makers.”

Eventually, despite my sympathetic willingness to imagine myself as more affluent and much much hipper and busier, even a cursory look at the job showed how I wouldn’t fit.  I was not only a “luddite” but proud to be so, and I was about as far down the line as anyone could be from their imagined candidate who was “passionate about disruptive technology.”

Passionate about disruptive technology?!  A storyteller?!  Would Homer be passionate about disruptive technology?  George Eliot?  Tolstoy?  I might be an “inherent optimist, with faith in the future despite the immense challenges of our time” and possess the “ability to process complex stacks of information without getting lost down a rabbit hole” as they phrase it, but I’d rather put my intellectual juice into conversations on how disruptive technology affects our ability to summon resonant metaphors and strategies for how to counteract it than into pretending it’s enhancing our lives.

Basically, the small start up wants to “on-board” someone to use stories to sell shit or to justify shit.  To convince people that shit doesn’t smell like shit because there isa beautiful story that connects us all to shit or whatever the fuck they need to do to make money so they can keep up their aesthetically and spiritually multi-hued new agey lifestyle in Sonoma county.  One of the bulleted “capabilities” for the position was “Maturity – you must have an active contemplative practice.”

During this moment, as I sat slackjawed, probing my disinterest in stepping up into the metropolitan fast-paced future Jean was envisioning for me, a few other “tells” passed in front of my eyes.  First, a Guinness beer ad that suspiciously sounded as if it were narrated by Alan Cumming, that deliciously gay man with a gorgeous Scottish accent.  Over images of all manner of folk connecting over a pint of frothing ale, the ad tells us that, in our desire to cozy up to friends and alcohol, we’re all alike deep down.  Okay, fine, I like beer too, and Cumming is hot regardless of his sexual preference.   All good.  But what if the challenge were to de-weaponize Amazon with a compelling story?

Then I stumbled across an article detailing what certain behaviors convey about a person revealed that long e-mail messages show neediness.  Well, yeah, that’s me, I conceded.  Needy.  Look at how long this blog post is.  And guess what?  NO ONE READS THEM.  After the shame the stupid content managers had slimed me with dribbled away, there remained a flicker of anger.  Yeah, I’m fucking needy, I wanted to shout.  I need people to pay attention; I need people to think for themselves.  I need people to understand how their day job is connected to the rest of the world.  My bad!

Then another article, which makes 3 and certifies this as a fairy-tale,  began with this quotation

We cannot be careful enough in refusing to act as splitters (i.e., like the Nazi doctors) or in refusing to live a split life in that sense.  And yet, in many circumstances, we cannot avoid acting as economic men and women of our time, performing certain professions and thus maiming our hearts.

— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley, editor)

I had a wild hair of a thought using a picture of the stories I was currently consuming as part of a job application.  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; Cheyenne Autumn; Killers of The Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and The Birth of the FBI; Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-1965; The Magic Mountain.  Which of these stories, I imagined asking coyly, might they ask me to draw upon to craft a narrative strategy for Facebook or, say, Energy Transfer Partners?

I suspect that the e-mail I received from Jean in response to my “thanks but no thanks” signals our friendship has shifted on to a back burner if not into cold storage.  This time, however, despite not yet finding my tribe, I’m less hurt.  She’s given me much to think about, even if it’s an awareness of where I don’t want my life to go and why.  And I hope when we connect again I’ll be able to report my progress and she’ll be able to share hers.  The stories we share will be complicated ones, cobbled together after we’ve done the hard work to chisel out and stay close to what’s most important to us.  I’ll drink to that!

 

Where things get interesting

March 10, 2018

the sign near my therapist’s office

 

from Paris Review Issue 91, Spring 1984 “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction 78”

The two roles [writing and preaching] are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Everything’s connected; everything’s changing. Pay attention!

March 8, 2018

photo by Annelise Makin imakinations.com/wordpress

 

This morning I saw three juvenile bald eagles. Their graceful swoops looked more to me like play than competition. But I still have a lot to learn about bald eagles.

The moment after I watched them disappear into the blue, my elation collapsed. “I am an apex predator who’s terrified,” I thought to myself. It seemed, suddenly, a horrible waste of evolutionary preeminence.

Our mind has as many possibilities as the sky, which can bring winds and sun, stars, and magnificent birds. Into mine the next thought arrived, sweeping up like the eagles:  of Bandelier National Monument and its Frijoles canyon where indigenous puebloans lived from somewhere around 1000 AD until 1500 AD.  Last year I was privileged to learn and then to share with park visitors a little about how the inhabitants might have experienced their lives.

For my guided walk of the canyon’s pueblo, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs, I chose to structure my observations around the theme of time. I knew even then that I was interested in the subject more for what I didn’t know about time than for what I did. Like the tarot pack’s Fool, I was walking off a cliff, cheerfully hoping the steps would arrive when I needed them.

I would start my talk with historical time – covering the history of the park service and gesturing to the pueblo revival buildings built by the CCC – then move to geological and biological time, which led to agriculture. When we reached the first kiva, constructed in the circle the puebloans had brought with them from Chaco, I would talk about cosmological time as they would have brought the Chacoans knowledge of the night sky with them as well.

Since new rangers are thrown into their talks much like early christians were to the lions, that’s about as far as I initially dug into the excavation of time. But I remember the feeling of dissatisfaction I had those first few weeks. There was something just out of reach, a lesson that would, once grasped, allow me to articulate the feeling I had when I walked through that canyon –  of something that was intangible but also singularly present. It was like an echo one wasn’t sure one had heard.

When rangers do their walks, supervisors pummel them into working out their transitions from one stop to the next. At first, when you’re trying desperately to learn everything from geology and botany to hiking trails to excel spreadsheets to coworkers’ sensitivities, the harking on seamless transitions is a form of torture. But by leaning into that struggle to link the stop at the creek to the next stop, the kiva, I found the door into the realm I’d been sensing.

Archaeologists know that the puebloans had fields scattered on the mesa tops. Given the scattered rainfall patterns, having plots in various locations ensured a greater chance of harvest. But they also would have had plots in the canyon bottoms, using either irrigation systems or hand-watering the crops vital to their tribe’s survival. When we were stopped at the creek, I’d ask visitors how they would feel if their job was to water the corn plants. Would they be irritated because they had other things they wanted to do?  In our culture, that would be a normal reaction since there are so many other tasks we are push ourselves to accomplish.

These indigenous people, I suggested, knew that their tasks, no matter how small, were intimately connected to their lives, to their tribe’s success, to the lives of their ancestors and descendants. The corn itself was understood and celebrated as a gift from their gods. Through their acts of tending it, they were living in sacred time, where they were the center of the universe – in the middle of a circle – not strung out on some linear spectrum where some work was more valuable than others.

As it is with any circle, I can’t be sure exactly where this thought had begun, only that once I possessed it, it encompassed and enchanted everything else, carrying me along to the kiva’s circle and to the concentric circles etched again and again in the walls above the cliff dwellings. And the theme of sacred time led me to my final, and favorite, stop – the Macaw petroglyph.

I loved the chance to ask visitors what they thought the image was. “Anteater,” I’d get more often than you’d imagine. “Horse” or “donkey” were others.  Each guess, no matter how far-fetched, offered the opportunity to remind them how people couldn’t draw what they’d never seen. Since anteaters weren’t native to North America and horses & donkeys were not reintroduced to North American until the Spanish arrived, those possibilities were eliminated. And it also built to the significance of what they were seeing: a tropical bird native to rainforests 3000 miles away.  Since the brilliantly colored macaws could fly and talk, they were considered birds of spirit, and their feathers were objects of trade. But the person who drew this image didn’t see a macaw feather, I would point out. “He saw the whole macaw.”

At this point, as I spun out an imagined scenario of how this ancestral puebloan might have made the trip to central American to capture these birds, how it might have been the most thrilling part of his life, how he’d chosen to commemorate it with this massive drawing and how he might have been known by other tribe members as the guy who would go on and on about the time he brought back the macaws, I could look out beyond my visitors and see much of the canyon stretch below. That people had chosen to live here, to love here, to die here, and to make their art here was, I hoped, as present to my visitors as it was to me.

“Today we don’t all experience sacred time,” I would remind them. “And even when we do, we are able to achieve it momentarily through meditation or through religion. Or we might experience it through art, through music or movies or images. Think of how when we hear a song we loved when we were younger and how time suddenly becomes vertical, not linear. We remember the first time we heard it and maybe another time and another time. That’s how these people lived their lives all of the time. And when we look at this macaw, at this work of art, we have the chance to experience what they did every minute of their lives.”

I wasn’t at Bandelier for long, but something about that canyon moved me, or helped move something within me. I took what I learned there and used it at my next park, George Washington’s birthplace, imagining more experiences that were hidden from plain sight but were waiting, like ghosts, to be brought into the light: the enslaved families and their ways of existing and resisting.

I’ve continued to build a foundation of perception that our contemporary culture would prefer none of us possess. For it is a powerful and revolutionary act to see spirit all around you, to choose your ancestors, and to know how you act in honoring them matters across dimensions your mind cannot access alone.

Those three eagles were not an accident, my Bandelier spirits whisper to me. I will never figure out all the secrets to time, but I’ll keep walking and talking, writing and sharing, and trying to discover new doorways that will, I know, offer more beautiful sights and inspired insights, like steps revealing themselves just in time on The Fool’s path.

ringing in the year: a letter to friends, known and unknown

January 1, 2018
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the wide, cold Potomac

Happy 2018.  I hope you rang the new year the way you wished to, in the company of one if not more of the people whom you’d like to include in many more joyful experiences as this year unfolds and the northern hemisphere moves into longer, warmer days.

Brr.  The Potomac here is too briny to freeze outright, but what’s fascinating today is that where the water level shallows, the waves, whipped to whitecaps in the center, slow down in a mesmerizing way kinda like those slowed down frames at the end of Taxi Driver.  In trying to describe it in my journal, my mind hit on the word “gravid.”  I’ve never once used it, but upon looking it up (don’t you love a dictionary?), I realized my mind had pulled out from all the clutter exactly what I needed.  Thank god something in there keeps chugging along!

As the most horrible year on my personal scorecard, 2017 just couldn’t end without one last scuffle.  Toward the end of last week I apparently indulged in the borderline-felonious illusion that my father’s wife might want to engage with me on a level other than the platitudinal.  Thus I committed what was apparently a heinous infraction of some invisible rule book by replying to her e-mail with one carefully expressing my recognition & gratitude for her love and support of my father while also noting that my experience with him had been much different.  Apparently this infringed well past her emotional boundaries, and the two of them both issued nasty e-mails to me telling me, with words undoubtedly served up by their separate laptops’ thesauruses, that I was intrusive and hostile.  blah blah blah.  A nice corporate-retirement touch:  they cc’d each other.

One interesting thing arising from this was when I called my mom to talk about it and she divulged a little tidbit from the workup to their second divorce: apparently my father, in his various nasty stratagems to reduce his alimony payments, had tried to float the idea that I wasn’t his child.  Nice.

That’s what I love about my dad’s version of family:  he always wants to have it both ways.  And the world, with all the arbitrariness of its ways, seems willing to let him do just that.  After many decades of searching,  he’s found a wife whose pension & savings not only pay the bills but who believes as fervently in his fantasies about the world & his participation in it as he adheres to hers.  True love.  Sigh!

Anyway, their behavior isn’t particularly upsetting, although at this moment in my life what I would prefer are fewer confrontations and more allies.  However, we don’t get a choice, and I haven’t got space for allies who are INSANE.  What is upsetting, unsurprisingly, is how much it makes me feel my solitude.  So few to turn to and ask, “Is it me who’s crazy or them?”  That was one of the bright spots of my relationship with my sister, another creature suffering the collateral damage wounding of that familial battleground.

It’s my hunch, however, that, just as my writing has allowed my mind better access to vocabulary words, so the work I’ve done on myself (all by myself) has strengthened my discernment to identify what matters to me, what I can accept as my responsibility, and what I won’t.  Jesus, I do hope that this hypothesis turns out to be true.  It won’t solve all or maybe any of my bigger, worldly problems, but if I keep paring stuff down to what I truly need, the baggage will continue to take up less space.  A very important criteria for nomads.

Well, thanks for reading this and sending out good vibes.  I know you’re out there beating back the craziness you’re encountering in your own ways.  That matters.  A lot.

Gardens

November 3, 2016

On my morning walk, a wild aster caught my eye. Its insouciant yellow eye, its unapologetic purple reminded me of the year I first fell deeply in love with gardening. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation but instead grabbed a shovel and broke earth.

It was a dangerous time: I was physically restless, gardening catalogues were crowding my mailbox, and flowers were much more beautiful, and quicker to bloom, than a dissertation on Henry James. I had just enough money to keep persistently purchasing plants, and after each nursery trip, when I realized I had too many for my initial plot, I simply worked on expanding it.

That’s what stuck in mind this morning: the memory of the years when I’d gone over the top with my plant purchases, how I’d scramble to find or create new spots for the newest additions. Because I was renting, I knew one day my personal Eden would end, but until then, I told myself, I needed the therapy of digging in the earth and communing with the plants, the “other kingdom.” Ever since, the memory of that frenzied time, and of our sad parting, has kept my gardening lust within healthy bounds.  I’m more likely now to replant a flower that has sowed itself somewhere without the proper design sense than to purchase a new one, more willing to appreciate flowering weeds than to act on the impulse to tend my own plot. The world holds enough blooms without my assistance.

When I lived in Ivy, Virginia, I enjoyed 18 acres that had been lovingly landscaped by a gentleman who’d died long before I arrived. The grounds were so extensive, the plants’ needs so demanding, that much of it was no longer tended. However, its continuing beauty spoke to me of the man who’d loved it.  I could sense how he too had combed through gardening magazines in late summer and how he had haunted nurseries. I could feel the burst of his enthusiasm for spring-blooming crab apples, ornamental cherries, magnolias, and dogwoods, and experience his thrill at discovering the wide variety of fall- blooming camellias and osmanthus.

Until I moved to this property in October 2013, I’d never smelled a fragrance so heavenly as that released by an osmanthus.  In central Virginia, too often the flowers’ bloom is destroyed by autumn rain. This is what happened the second year I was there, and I  walked around the rain-dampened tree sadly, wondering if I’d have another year to enjoy its scent.

A few weeks later, I smelled another, similarly-entrancing fragrance, so distinctive when leaves are falling and days are shortening.  For a few days the scent kept teasing me and doggedly I searched, hacking through the areas where the original plantings were now tangled with obstinate bittersweet, wild grape, honeysuckle, and wisteria. When I found the scent’s source, I laughed out loud. “Oh Alexander,” I said to this long-deceased gardener. “What gifts you’ve left!”  This osmanthus was a different species than the one I’d adored, but apparently hardier, having reseeded itself.  Now growing in patches closer to the road, the bushes liberally shared their sweetness with anyone who took the time to stop and sniff the fall air.

Upon my recommendation, a friend is reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire.  This morning as I walked away from that self-planted aster, I recalled what was to me Pollan’s most persuasive argument:  that plants use people as much as we use plants.  Through their usefulness or their beauty, they have succeeded in convincing us to domesticate them, into transporting them from continent to continent.  I thought of what we sow  whenever we decide to plant, whether we nurture the soil, lend a book, behave with kindness, or share a smile.  If we do it right, what blooms outlasts our first efforts and blesses those we will never meet.

aster

thoughts on art, truth, and unconditional love

October 23, 2016

I’ve found a temporary nest in my father’s second home outside of Albuquerque.  I’m not ungrateful for the space; it’s giving me room to think about what to do next.  Still, my relationship with my dad being what it has been, multiplied by my strongly developed hermit-like tendencies, made being here during the 2 weeks my dad & his wife were still in residency a tight-rope walk.

Once they left for Florida, I gave myself permission to tear into Elena Ferrante’s 4 novels (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neapolitan_Novels).  Although my friend had recommended them 3 weeks ago and I had purchased them 2 weeks ago at a Santa Fe independent bookstore, I’d held off, perhaps sensing that once I started I wouldn’t be able to interact with members of the human race in any adequate way.  Within 4 days, I had finished them.  At first I thought, “Whoa!  Slow down.  Stop binging.”  Then I realized this is who I am, someone who binges on great fiction.  When I’m deep into another world, I can barely lift my head to consider the real one, forget to move for long periods of time, neglect caring for myself, grab junk food rather than cooking, dress carelessly, fail to leave the house.  I’ve been doing this since I was a child.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the 4th novel:

“And then he laughed … said obscurely that in his view love ended only when it was possible to return to oneself without fear or disgust, and left the room.”

I thought of the times in my life when love’s fever had cooled to the point that I could return to myself without fear or disgust.  At this point in the quartet, Ferrante has guided her readers through love’s infernos and finally places this remark in the mouth of the protagonist’s former lover, a revolutionary crippled by Fascists.  How had she arrived at this truth, I wondered?  Did it unfold itself gradually as she wrote or was it one of the ideas she began with when she started to write?  That she could place it so casually in the midst of the flood of words and ideas that filled these four novels filled me with admiration.  But truth is like that, no matter where you find it.  It glitters amid the dross; it stops time; it arranges chaos.

Reading these novels reminded me of why I want to write.  Not for fame or recognition but because through fiction there’s an opportunity to give something important to someone.  You can’t control what that gift will be or who will receive it.  You write because there’s a chance that something you express will act as a rope to someone who’s sinking so she can drag herself onto solid ground.

If art is any good, it manages to express someone’s notion of truth.  But it has to be forged with the highest intentions.  And for me that entails being alone, going into the depths and facing myself: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly parts.  This kind of scrutiny is not for everyone.  Other people choose to fill their lives with obligations & other people.  Resentful at the sacrifices I’ve felt forced into making, I once labeled these other set of choices as distractions from what was most important.  I realize now that they are different paths on the search for truth.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed in writing fiction.  It’s hard, and I’m one of the laziest people I know.  But I am also vain (Ferrante has a great observation about vain people too), so I will keep trying, hoping, dreaming.  I will also keep working at my ability to love unconditionally.  Because that’s what art is too:  giving yourself to the world, trusting that it will nourish someone somewhere just as you have been nourished, cared for, protected, and loved.