At quick glance, autumn in southern California looks a lot like summer, and suspiciously similar to spring. The magnolia sheds year-round, and year-round gardens flower. I'm coming up on ten years since I moved here from Boston, and now see the seasonal changes: mulberries in June, black widows in October, and those twice-yearly Seussian jacaranda trees that turned my head around the first year and haven't lost their stun. But, still, at quick glance, it's the same.
For those of us from elsewhere, nostalgic for other weather, we can be much like the protagonist in Ray Bradbury's story, "All Summer in a Day." In my 9th grade year, some time after PBS made a melancholy film short of the story (like everything, now online), I spent lunchtime in the library reading. Anything I found there was, I knew, more satisfying than noisy cafeteria dramas. Upon discovering the collection of Bradbury stories, for the first time I considered writers and their varied literary careers. For good or bad, the moment was brief. Several weeks into the school year, I took my PB&J downstairs to choir, and though I remained a voracious reader, music took the lead. Now I wonder - was it the endless blue Los Angeles sky that inspired Bradbury's story? Growing up here, did he wonder fantasize about LA's rainy opposite?
Last week marked the tipping point wherein daytime slips further away and dark tucks us under its cover with a steamy mug and a book. My 12-year-old tells me every day how much she likes autumn, though winter is her favorite. That's the privilege of growing up in southern California. I'm still recovering from three decades in the northeast. I recently tried explaining Seasonal Affective Disorder, but there's no way to describe to a child who has only experienced intermittent rainfall how winter swipes the Technicolor world into shades of gray.
But autumn is middle ground. The equinox, the balanced moment between light and dark. Growing up with the lunar-calendar-based Jewish holidays, I'm still attuned to the moon and seasonal markers. I still watch the sky at night and try, despite Los Angeles, to honor the seasons' shift. Last week I wondered about the shift balance and what the darker side of the year means this time around. I still have work to do before 2017 runs out, and longer evenings beg me to study late. But then Darby and I ran off to the ragged central coastline of Big Sur and all I can think of now is the syrupy roll of the Pacific and its swirling sheet of auburn kelp. All I can hear are the thundering waves.
Many years ago, I slept one night in Israel's Negev Desert. That starlit sky and this week's Big Sur milky way are pressed together like related books on a shelf. Not even a slice of moon shrouded the glittering dark.
As usual, this blog is unfinished. Just thoughts getting thrown down willy nilly. Another nugget of an idea to grow later into an essay or poem. Or maybe just to remind me when I read this later on to find a picnic table under a night sky far from a city.
Lesson #8 was last week, and we were displaced to the shallower pool because of a polo match. It's taken me the week to reflect on what I learned, mostly because I've been nursing an intense back pain that started a few days before that lesson. For years I only did yoga. It was the perfect exercise for my body, and the philosophy gave me invaluable lessons for my mind. So many of life's puzzles sorted themselves out as I contemplated the sutras and sweated through stillness. But then I pushed too hard and injured my shoulder, and in the period of recovery, I found running. Yoga philosophy is not tied to the mat, and I found a meditation in the rhythm of my foot falls, until I ran too far - 18 miles and then 26.2 - and had to lay off for some time. That's when I found swimming a few years ago, which forced me to face longtime fears of losing breath. While it got too cold, I went to spin, but by then I was also back to yoga and running. Last week, some mysterious combo of yoga and spin and extra time to do both because of Labor Day wrecked my SI joint. Though it has been improving over the past few days, water is really the only thing that makes it feel better: hot showers, jacuzzi, steam room, and the pool. Though I've cycled through exertion practices for years (I don't really like to call them workouts - they are as much for my mind as my body), it finally sunk in with swim lesson #8 that this is not a failure of yoga or running or my teachers or me. They are all perfect practices when done perfectly, but I am not perfect. I am only human. One day a wrong move, a deeper stretch, or longer distance will sideline me in any endeavor I try. I like to push my body because I like to push my mind beyond my imagined limitations. I am no more wrong to do that than I am to write a book or record an album or earn a new degree. I was once also injured by music, which is how I found book writing. Perhaps instead of cursing my injuries, I should thank them: they are what push me on to new delights.
Swimming lesson #7: I've mentioned it before, but it's beautiful down there beneath the surface. Every time I cross the pool I take it in: the shapes of sunlight in the ripples, the heart shadows my arms make in the breast stroke, the bubbles from my exhales during the crawl. Today we did a bunch of drills and then practiced somersault flips, closing out the hour with a 200 meter crawl with flips between laps (no rests). Though I look around each time I cross, I think today was the first time I kept my eyes open for the flips. My god, it's magical. I've got to remember not just to look where I'm going or to reflect on where I've been, but to pay attention so I can see the beauty in that brief moment that comes with the transition between the two.
I came to the pool for Swim Lesson #6 feeling cranky. It'd been a good morning, actually - I'd just taught two energizing yoga classes. But just before I left the yoga studio to go to the pool, a yoga teacher who came in to teach the next class said a few snarky things, and my mood deflated. It was a good reminder about being careful about the energy we bring with us: her snarkiness snared me, and I brought it with me to the pool. I felt tired, suddenly, and stood on the edge uncertain if I wanted to go in, not feeling like I had the strength for an hour of drills. Though yoga's practice of pratipaksha bhavana says “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of" (Sutra 2.33), I couldn't manage to flipswitch my mood. I dipped my toe in - the class had already begun warm up laps - and I climbed reluctantly down the ladder. I submerged to my hips, still feeling rotten, and hung on for another minute to the ladder bars, debating whether or not to go in. At last I let go and submerged completely into the sun-filled blue. By the time I pushed back up to the surface, my bad mood had entirely washed away. So lesson #6 was, I suppose, of self-awareness and allowance: be aware of how my mood might influence others, and allow the stark difference of complete submersion to wash away the residue of another's spoiled temper.
"Trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together, and don't fret about the rest." – Amy Sage Webb
My AULA creative writing pedagogy mentor, Amy Sage Webb, said the above last December in an exciting seminar I attended during that particular MFA residency. They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears; in that moment, I knew I would enroll in the Post-MFA Program in Creative Writing Pedagogy just to have the opportunity to study with Amy, who is also Co-Director of Creative Writing at Emporia State University in Kansas. What I didn't realize at the time was that it was a two-for-one deal with co-mentor, Tammy Lechner, a teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist - talk about synergy. Since mid-June, with Amy and Tammy and my small Post-MFA cohort comprised of six other writer-teachers, I've been in constant discussion about what makes a great teacher, what the best college teachers do to create engaging and stimulating learning environments, and how to bring these macro-ideas into the composition and creative writing classroom. We've discussing questions about authority, gender issues, learning theory, teaching philosophies, how to evaluate creative work, what higher education politics mean to our budding careers in academia, and how to develop learning objectives that foster discipline-related intellectual growth alongside personal growth in our students.
Concurrently, I opted in for a double-wammy of enrolling in a Post-MFA Professional Development semester focused on book coaching and online creative writing pedagogy. With author and teacher Kate Maruyama, and writer and pedagogy specialist, Curt Duffy, alongside guidance from Amy and Tammy, I've been developing a community online writing course to teach later this autumn. The course idea comes from something I've been fired up about lately: weird writing structures, a/k/a lyric essay, a/k/a where poetry and prose meet. The course is meant to inspire first drafts of new work for seasoned and new writers alike, and will explore non-traditional forms to find inspiration from the mundane moments of every day. Since the course will be in feast-centered November, with my lifelong interest in cooking and food I couldn't resist adding a little twist. The course is called "Feasting on Form: Noodling Around with Experimental Creative Nonfiction." That whole month (the course is 4 weeks), we'll explore bite-sized ideas taken from grocery lists to lonely snacks to shared meals -- all ripe for narrative discovery -- and share brief essays that we write inspired by these moments. I believe some students will leave the class with solid drafts close to submission-ready for literary journals.
I’ve frequently thought of Amy's words about synergy since receiving my MFA degree in June. As I query literary agents for my memoir, continue to lead the editorial team on Lunch Ticket, work through my Post-MFA courses, occasionally squeak out a new essay or a few words in my novel-in-progress, and plan the yoga and creativity retreat in January, I could wonder if my head-down work ethic blinds me to the viability of making a professional career of writing and teaching. After all, one agent who recently turned me down wrote, “I really like your writing—I really do!... but, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had the shittiest time placing memoir lately.” But after repeating the synergy mantra since December, it comes unbidden now, and I truly believe it. I’m not fretting very much. I trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together – the retreat! My studies! My writing! It all feels too good to fret about. And in any case, I’m having fun.
The other night, my writing group gathered for our twice-monthly meeting at my house. We've been meeting together for more than a year. Lately, my increased pedagogy coursework leaves little time for creative writing, so I depend on these friends to keep me accountable to my artistic side. This week I only had three pages of new work for them to read, but they were three pages I wouldn't have written otherwise. Inspired by my group’s feedback, I’ve already redrafted the piece and shipped it off to a literary contest.
Before we settled into the meeting, one writer in the group confessed to me about feeling concerned about her future job prospects. She's about ten years younger but we've shared some similar life paths through music, writing, communal living, and honest day jobs. She asked me about the coursework I've been doing. Will it guarantee a job, she wanted to know. How can I answer that, after my strange career life: a touring musician, a chef, a photographer, an artist model, a newsstand clerk, an administrative assistant, a yoga teacher, a production supervisor at a music label? How do you answer a question like that in today's gig economy in which universities depend on adjunct faculty the same way for-profit companies avoid benefit payouts with outsourced consultants?
But Amy Sage Webb’s words come back to me. I need to remember to share them with my writing group. “Trust," Amy says. By its nature, trust is about the unknowable, the uncertain. Trust is about things just out of sight, just beyond the bend, though not as far away as, perhaps, faith.
Trust reminds me of the E.L. Doctorow quote, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." When I’m stuck midway through a chapter of my novel and start fretting about where it might be heading, I think back to this quote. But it helps me even more when I lift my head from my school work. “Trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together.” The road is beneath the tires, I can see as far as November to the month-long writing course, and as far as January to the yoga and creativity retreat. Ten years ago, I didn’t have this kind of trust that things will work out fine, but perhaps, more than anything, that’s what the decade has taught me.
This time next year? I have no idea. But I’m not fretting. Where we put our attention is how we define our reality. And like I said, I’m having fun.