Yesterday, when I went to see Brad Kessler, my mentor from last Project Period, he put down his sandwich, opened his arms wide, shrugged his shoulders -- "Tunafish sandwich" -- and gave me a hug. We sat for some minutes - ten? twenty? I gave him homemade thin mints, a small token of appreciation for the time and thought he devoted to my writing this past semester. We discussed my upcoming term, potential topics for the five-page critical paper I'll need to write in the coming months, and which mentor might be good for me in this next Project Period.
How do I say this without sounding inappropriate, without innuendo? Much of last night, I dreamt of Brad. The dreams were filled with other people, and also food -- we were to make a meal or have a celebration or something. I was a student, and through my dreams I was trying to find him, trying to find some time to learn from him. I trailed him into the kitchen, I offered to help chop. Isn't this strange though? I myself am a cook; people come to me for lessons. Not so say I am an expert at all things food, but isn't it a strange setting for this dream?
And yet, food is nourishment. I cook to offer comfort or love to others. I am not a true culinary artist, despite the pride I take in my cakes and pies. They are just stand-ins for my need to show love in a way that feels appropriate toward strangers, toward acquaintances, toward friends.
I saw Brad last night at the evening's readings. He was there with the featured reader, White Oleander author Janet Fitch. At the end of the night I introduced him to Darby whom he has heard a lot about through my writing and weekly check-ins. It's strange to have so many people shake hands in introduction to Darby with a look of familiarity in their eyes, but that is the kind of writer I am: I write about the personal because I have this gut instinct that within our specific experiences there are universal connections.
So when my mentor met Darby last night in person for the first time, there was a two-way look of recognition -- both have heard a lot of each other, and yet how strange! I have barely spent more than a few hours in the same room with Brad, and we have rarely spoken about anything outside of my writing. We creative non-fiction writers are odd folk. How few conversations we have with each other, and yet how much we know about each other's lives and interior experiences.
My dreams last night were also about chasing. I was trying to find Brad, trying to get in the same space as him, trying to learn from him. I woke with an aching desire for the semester and this relationship to continue. Let me be clear: these are not romantic notions. I am easily able to separate admiration and desire, and Brad is an exquisite writer, an insightful teacher, and a kind person. But, I have true affection for him and it saddens me to move on. There is still so much I want to learn from him. Yet the way this program is designed, each term we have a new mentor.
One thing I know about myself is that I get terribly attached. There are childhood experiences, of course, that I am sure created this trait. But, this is how I am, so remind me of it in six months when I am dreaming of cooking meals with my next mentor.
Meanwhile, though, I am full of appreciation for the past six months' opportunity to work with Brad. Even this morning, as my dreams were shaking off, I had a realization from our conversation over the tuna sandwich yesterday. I am suddenly clear on the topic for my five-page critical paper. He's given me gifts of self-awareness and craft-polish that are my constant keyboard companions, and I suppose my task now is to take them with me on the next part of my journey here, with me as I travel with a new mentor/companion.
I stole many minutes -- hours, actually -- yesterday morning. I stayed in bed. I had coffee with Darby. We talked, we meandered. It was the second day of the residency, but I wasn't super excited about the early morning presentations and I had a gig later that night, so I lollygagged. Ah, it was wonderful.
I arrived on campus in time for my first orientation to Lunch Ticket, the literary journal here that I intend to work on for my field study requirement. It feels a bit indulgent -- I never did work on my college paper as I secretly wished -- but I wonder why, if I was always intrigued by publishing, why I never did pursue that path. Now's my chance, and since it fulfills the field study requirement, it's even better.
I'm a big fan of learning the inner workings of something as a way to become more comfortable in the larger picture. In other words, working on Lunch Ticket will orient me to the inside world of a literary mag. In time I intend to submit my own work to journals. Having a peek into the psychology and layout of the Lunch Ticket organization will, I believe, dilute the mystic -- at least enough to soften my jitters -- of submitting to others.
The question, of course, is how on earth does all this fit into my daily life? Adding proofreading and editing or reading submissions or promoting... I have no idea where the time will come from, but I'm a big fan of "take a leap and the net will appear" (or something like that).
Some highlights from Day 2:
Regarding the importance of first sentences, first paragraphs, first pages (from Peter Selgin): "If the first bite isn't good, there's no need to eat the whole pie."
Sentimentality: emotion in excess of experience. (Also Peter.)
Roxane Gay's 4 questions to ask when writing a personal essay:
1 - How are you going to bring the reader into your essay?
2 - What are you going to leave the reader with?
3 - Why should they care?
4 - How are you going to bring the reader to care?
For the past week, my Facebook newsfeed has been a flurry of packing suitcases, road trip photos, last minute loose end knots. It seems we're all trying to cover our foundations, make sure the bills have been paid, the laundry all done, the emails sent, because over the next 9 days there will be no time for the little bits of normal responsibility. School is in session. The residency has started.
People ask me all the time how I manage being in this program while juggling a day job, yoga teaching, music, family, and all the other delicious things that fill up my life. Truthfully, I'm not sure how it all works out. Also, truthfully, it works out because I am committed to it working. And also, my MFA program is a low residency format.
I knew when I started flirting with the idea of going back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing that there was no room in my life for a full-time every-day-on-campus type of academic experience. For the first year or so I took online classes at UCLA Extension, but the deeper I got in my writing process, the more I wanted, well, MORE. I wanted steady classmates who were as committed to their work as I am. I wanted mentors. I wanted the structure of an academic environment. And, because I would like to teach Creative Writing, I wanted the degree.
Antioch's low residency format is set up for people in scenarios like me. From start to degree, it's four semesters, with an optional post-MFA certificate in Pedagogy and/or further professional development. Each semester is comprised of two parts: a ten-day on campus residency intensive followed by a five-month project period in which we work independently on our writing and communicate with our mentors and classmates online.
Today marks the beginning of Residency #2.
I left the house early to beat traffic and to leave some time for blogging before my first seminar begins at 9am on First Pages. Later this afternoon I'll attend a seminar on The Art of Translation, which is part of the work I will be doing throughout this coming project period. The day will end with some exciting readings that I have been looking forward to: colleague and gifted writer Allie Marini Batts --- she's prolific and I have no idea what link to share here, so I'll just give you this short story -- , and guest writer Roxane Gay -- remarkable woman, fabulous writer, and also incredibly prolific.
Abrupt ending here - apologies - as classmates are arriving and hugs and hellos and catchups... I suppose tomorrow I will have to find a quieter blog spot. (Of course I'm loving the hugs and hellos!)
this piece originally appeared on Lunch Ticket (June 6. 2014), the literary magazine of Antioch's MFA program: http://lunchticket.org/bookstore/
My favorite Boston bookstore—my singular favorite in a city purportedly abounding with more bookstores per square mile than any other—is like a reversed Narnia wardrobe. When I think of it, there’s a wide glowing window display and thirty minutes disappearing faster than a J.P. Licks frappe. Those thirty minutes would be, of course, window-browsing moments. Step inside Harvard Book Storeand delightful minutes in the shop would translate to hours gone by in the outside world.
In my thirteen years as a Bostonian, I often bathed in the warm glow of the Boston Book Store display. Nothing fancy: no bells, whistles, or tourist traps splayed with the university logo. Just a series of windows along the Mass Ave. sidewalk set with new releases, best sellers, and staff picks. Curious portals to new worlds and ideas.
Despite the adage, I found cover art mattered. So did font. A book in the window with an interesting cover could pull me through the heavy front door into the stacks. If I didn’t have more than a few minutes on my slushy commute, I’d scrawl titles in my journal. Middlesex. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Lovely Bones. Often, I did find minutes to spare for an inside browse around current titles. A jaunt downstairs to the used collection. I’d wander around a bit until a cozy section seduced me, and there loosen my scarf, unbutton my coat, let my bag fall to the floor. Sometimes I stood propped against a bookcase as my eyes scanned the spines. Many times I’d tuck away in a corner, fold myself small on the floor, limbs piled together, so other patrons could step over me while I travelled through narratives of other lives, other eras.
Time slipped by in those visits. In the face of books and stories, the universe felt endlessly expansive. But, eventually my stomach would rumble and my feet start begging to get out of those damn boots. In the last few minutes I’d stop at my touchstone, Fiction – W: every visit I was sure to check the Jeanette Winterson shelf. I don’t know why I did, but because of her I discovered other writers nearby: Sarah Waters. Alice Walker. Jeannette Walls. Ah, the beauty of a bookstore.
All over Cambridge and Boston were independent book and music shops alike, and cafes to sit and read. The streets were lined with shops offering respite from the cold. Shelves stacked with imagined worlds to warm the soul. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, amid a culture of people who loved books, music, and cafés.
Meanwhile, Starbucks had arrived. Up and down Mass Ave., independent cafes—along with their weekly open mics—began to close down. Napster showed up, and record shops shuttered. Even through this shift, bookstores remained, and I remained oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industries taking place across the rest of the country. Despite the intellectual colonization that was streamlining America’s interests, Boston’s book and literary culture thrived.
Sometime in the mid-aughties, I left New England. I had a combination of bitter cold weariness, dark days depression, and an itch for something new. Barely sure where Los Angeles was in the general scope of “southern California,” I headed west. On the way, my best friend called from San Francisco.
“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how much you love February,” she said.
Sure enough, two months into SoCal living, I texted her from Santa Monica. It was February. The sun was hot on my shoulders. I was barefoot on the beach. I was smitten with the Golden State.
I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years now. I love this town, and I love February—I’ll shout it from the Hollywood Hills. (I probably have.) There’s inspiration tucked into every side alley. Songs and stories in every guest house. I could write through the endless summer about all the things I adore about this town. But oh, I do so miss those Boston bookstores.
Here in L.A. I understand why people leap to Amazon. I understand the one-stop-shop online easy-peasy lemon squeezy la-dee-da. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s practical.
One Friday evening last autumn I had a hankering for a particular book. I skipped out on a yoga class to hit the library before it closed, but I didn’t check the listed hours and ended up standing alone in the library parking lot staring at the locked entrance. That night I drove the streets of North Hollywood, Burbank, and Studio City, searching for a place to buy my book. The one shop I knew about was open, but on their Barnes & Noble shelves I couldn’t find what I wanted. To reclaim the fruitless evening, I called a friend and the night ended with margaritas. The next day I clicked to Amazon.
Now, to be fair, Los Angeles does have bookstores, and a few excellent ones at that. The problem is like good wine, which I try to stay away from it since I can’t afford to be ruined by good taste: Boston spoiled me. Bookstores were part of my daily commute. The city provided independently curated collections every half block. They seduced me even when I had no thought of books in mind.
Here in L.A., bookstores are destinations to drive to. Events for which I need to clear my calendar. In Los Angeles I never just happen upon a bookstore. I am never seduced.
I suppose this is a call to action. Bookstores in Los Angeles—and perhaps in your town as well—are not just going to set up shop on the broken sidewalk next to our parking meters. They’re coy. They sit in out-of-the-way spots and wait for us to find them.
But you remember, don’t you, the way time used to slip as your eyes scanned the spines? The way you stumbled upon new authors because you, like me, had a touchstone in Fiction – W. How you heard your name calling from the covers and the fonts laid out near the front entryway under the bold sign “New Releases”?
As it turns out, there is one bookstore near my house. I sometimes bike past The Illiad on my way to yoga. A few months ago, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, crooked my head to one side, and read every spine in search of the titles on my semester reading list. It is a used bookstore, and scented with that familiar mustiness of old pages. There are stacks in disarray at the front desk which is attended by delightfully unkempt introverts.
I’ve always been torn about buying used books and CDs: no payment for the writer, for the artist. And yet: it is a bookstore. Bookstore means unbuttoning my coat and laying down my bag. It means walking through the Narnia wardrobe and losing myself, unintended, in an ever-expanding universe. In this world of virtual shops and productive shopping, The Illiad is a heaven of exploration and hidden treasures.
In the end, I found all but five of the books on my list. For the rest I used the Amazon gift card I received over the holidays. This is the way I intend to do it for now on—local, independent bookstore first, even if it is inconvenient or a little out of the way; independent online retailer second—many brick and mortar stores, including the Harvard Book Store, are also online retailers; Amazon as a last resort.
After all, as writers and book lovers, it is not enough to have a stack of tomes next to the bed. We must support our literary culture, and at the very least, find and support one place of book lover refuge nearby. Because some nights are for margaritas. But some are for books.
My first semester is done like dinner. Finished. Cooked. Devoured. Dishes are washed and put away, the evening walk completed. I'm now in my pajamas, curled up on the couch trying to wrap my head around the upcoming 10-day residency for Semester 2.
In the next two weeks I'll hunker down with pages of required and recommended reading, prep work for the ten long days of seminars and workshops. The descriptions are enticing and although only seven seminars/lectures/workshops are required, I've highlighted fifteen. I mentioned it to Darby the other day and he just rolled his eyes.
Of course you are going to fifteen, he said with a little smile and shake of his head.
I'm a curious cat and he knows me well. The residency only comes up twice a year, and wouldn't you want to soak up as much as you can?
But, there's also the question of balance. Once again I'm hoping to get an hour of exercise every day I'm on campus. I'll pack my running shoes, some yoga clothes, a towel. There's a lovely cemetery across the street from the school, and last time I intended to explore it. I did glimpse it from a faculty member's window a time or two. I imagined a run through the quiet paths would be wonderful. Somehow it never happened, not even a walk.
More on balance later. Meanwhile, in case anyone out there in the wide world of readers is interested, here's a list of what I read since January. I need to write summaries on some of my recent reads (see below the pic), but it's a good start:
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: SEMESTER 1
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print
The second book of Alcott’s classic Little Women trilogy is a fictionalized account of true events from the author’s life. It follows Little Women’s main character Jo March presiding as the mistress over Plumfield, a boarding school for needy boys. This classic YA novel is filled with antics and anecdotes about the children at Plumfield. Though dated and with some clumsy writing, the book is ultimately uplifting as it follows the children through their joys and challenges with nurturing guidance from Jo and her husband.
Ballantine, Poe. “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel.” The Sun. (June 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 66-75. Print.
Beard, Jo Ann. The Boys of My Youth. New York: Little, Brown, 1999. Print.
This collection of short stories taken from microscopic moments and monumental events in the author’s life, set within her relationships with family, classmates, and friends, are joined in their honesty, detailed descriptions, and masterful crafting. The stories range from early childhood through her marriage and post-marriage years. Throughout the collection, the author holds a tight frame on the story, illustrating exemplary control of plot and characters.
Berger, John. Here Is Where We Meet. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Print.
Here Is Where We Meet is a fictionalized exploration into present relationships with meaningful people from the author’s earlier life who have since passed away. With a delicate intimacy, the author explores ideas of sacredness within personal relationships, profundity in small gestures, and the simple beauty of ordinary interactions.
Carson, Anne. Plainwater: Essays and Poetry. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
This five-part collection of lyrical poetry and poetic prose, draws equally on Carson’s elegant imagination rooted in modern day and her expertise of the Classics and ancient philosophy. In "Part I Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings”, Carson takes fragmented remains of Greek lyric poet Mimnermus and re-envisions them in interpretations with lusty imagery. In “Part II Short Talks”, each piece is a brief musing inspired by art, location, and relationship dynamics. “Part III Canicula Di Anna” (the dog days of Anna) Carson’s poetry/prose philosophical musings shift through narrative points-of-view, camera angles, and reality. “Part IV The Life of Towns” is a collection of poems, each presented as singular ideas, emotions, or images. Of the five sections, “Part V Anthropology of Water” is the most linear, written as a series of stories related by theme and metaphor, and explores the relationships between men and women.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1968. Print.
The title essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, as with many others in the collection, focusses on a featured group of people, closely observing the subjects without the author involving herself. While Didion holds herself separate from the subjects, there is a relationship that she cultivates with the reader. These essays maintain careful balance of narration and exposition. They feature a conversational style with the reader, specificity of place and time, and a use of writing as a tool for personal exploration.
Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways. New York: Little, Brown. 2013. Print.
“I took to the open road,” writes William Least Heat-Moon early in his book Blue Highways, “in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.” He set out alone, in need of quietude and a new path for his life, and also because the “distant side of the beyond seems a lure we can’t resist.” There are two stories running through Blue Highways’ pages: one is the author’s dissolving marriage; the other is on the outside world, and the author’s philosophical inquiry into Self, ego, and change.
Kelley, William Melvin. “Breeds of America.” Harper’s Magazine. (August 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 1-16. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.
Through sex, drugs, and jazz, On the Road is based on the true life travels of author Jack Kerouac and friends as they drove and hitchhiked across the U.S. and Mexico in the latter half of the 1940s. Set against the ever-changing scenery of small towns, big cities, and the road, On the Road is a search for belonging and the meaning of life amid a changing American culture. It is the beat generation’s iconic novel about a quest for self-discovery amid a culture of conformity, and a capsule of a particular time of American history.
Kessler, Brad. Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. New York: Scribner, 2009. Print
Goat Song follows the author’s first year of raising Nubian goats in rural Vermont as he learns to care for them, examines the relationship between contemporary Western culture and its pastoral roots, and explores the art of making cheese. The writing is both amiable and insightful. The dialog and in-scene descriptions of goat breeding, birthing, and milking are at once lovely and entertaining, and are balanced by an informative essayistic voice that investigates the history and influence of pastoral life on our modern day alphabet, idioms, and biases.
Kirn, Walter. “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon.” The New Republic. (August 2, 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 92-105. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Square Fish, 2007. Print.
A YA science fiction/fantasy about 14-year old Meg Murray who travels through time and space with her brothers in order to save their scientist father who is held hostage on an unfriendly planet. The book features strong, intelligent, and complex female characters and deals with multiple dimensions, alien intelligent life, scientific theories, adolescent challenges, single-parent households, and abandonment issues, as well as subtle underlying Christian themes.
Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken, 1984. Print.
In The Periodic Table, Levi intertwines scientific study with universal themes amid the challenges of daily living as a Jew in Nazi Europe. The author universalizes his experiences in the lab and in Nazi-era Europe by drawing human insights out of the elements’ physical and interactive qualities. With keen observation and beautiful sentences, Levi illuminates qualities of everyday objects while illuminating qualities of character.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Melville’s American classic Moby Dick explores themes of fate, free will, and chance and couches them within beautiful and sentimental descriptions of a whaling ship’s epic oceanic voyage in pursuit of Captain Ahab’s obsession / nemesis / muse, the white whale Moby Dick. Amid encyclopedic research, philosophical musings, and social commentary is elegant language, humor, and lightheartedness.
Munro, Alice. “Night.” Dear Life: Stories. (2012). Alfred A. Knopf. Rpt in Granta (Summer 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 17-26. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. New York: Vintage International, 1976. Print.
The short novel Coming Through Slaughter is a speculation of what happened to the mysterious New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden when he disappeared for two years, and then, upon emergence back into society, had a public psychotic breakdown that landed him in a mental hospital from age thirty to his death twenty-four years later. Through fictionalized accounts and shifting points-of-view based on true-life records, relations, and one photograph, the author brings to life a man whose influence on the emerging jazz sounds out of New Orleans during his lifetime were undeniable, but whose life, without record, video, or journalism, might have otherwise slipped through the cracks of time.
Pollack, Eileen. “Pigeons.” Prairie Schooner. (Spring 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 114-122. Print.
Sampsell, Kevin. ““I’m Jumping Off the Bridge.”” Salon.com. (August 3, 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 106-112. Print.
Schmitt, Richard. “Sometimes a Romantic Notion.” The Gettysburg Review. (Autumn 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 27-37. Print.
Inspired by a light conversation with a colleague, Schmitt’s essay is a reflection on the free-spirited cliché of (as his colleague said) “running off to join the circus” versus his own challenges as a young adult in getting a job at a circus. Schmitt parallels his memories of the circus with his current challenges as a fiction writer and the clichés that writing is a “God-given genius” rather an endeavor with its plethora of difficulties. The writer’s description of his current struggles and past challenges has a genial feel, communicating directly to the reader with easy-going conversational questions that fashion a sense of mutuality in the personal struggle of young adults or artists, and the desire to hide the growing pains from the public eye.
Shapiro, Dani. Devotion. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
Author Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her spiritual quest to understand the intersections between her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her assimilated, modern, non-religious lifestyle. Through studies in Judaism, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy, along with self-inquiry, Shapiro’s memoir is a process of her examination of personal challenges and her hunt for how to live fearlessly amid the uncertain, temporary nature of life.
Thomas, Abigail. Safekeeping. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.
Safekeeping is a collection of thoughts and scenes from Thomas’ life, each presented in its own chapter, some mere lines in length, some several pages, none tied together through a joining thread of linearity, but which, as a whole book, tell the tender, bittersweet story of Thomas’ loves – marital, sibling, parent/child – and her struggles to know and, as Anne Lamott says, lean “to rejoice in herself”.
Veselka, Vanessa. “Highway of Lost Girls.” GQ. (November 2012). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 38-55. Print.
Vollmer, Matthew. “Keeper of the Flame.” New England Review, 33/1. (2013). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 56-65. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, 1981. Print.
Woolf’s lyrical novel To The Lighthouse explores the internal landscape of its characters amid the setting of a beach house overlooking an expanse of sea. Woolf explores themes of the real versus the imagined life and the role of ego and Self. The authors follows moments of mind-chatter and mood swings from an internal perspective, noting the moments where the characters are critical of each other alongside moments of tenderness. The novel is a dexterous play of perspective, moving from one character to the other, shifting mercurially with the characters’ emotions.
Yoshikawa, Mako. “My Father’s Women.” The Missouri Review. (Spring 2013). Rpt. in The Best American Essays. Ed. Cheryl Strayed. 2013. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 76-91. Print.
Hi ho, it's me here, a/k/a "Sick As A Dog", writing to you from a miraculously upright position. Granted, I can tend toward the dramatic, but I'm a little p.o.'ed that the cold everyone has gotten this winter has hit me TWICE. This, without even one airplane trip or snowstorm.
On the upside, my office was closed for the long President's Day weekend and I had no other official plans, so after getting through the idea that no, I would not be running eleven miles around Griffith Park, and no, I would not frolic along the mulch-y Mount Baldy riverside trails with Darby, I felt no guilt about tucking into bed for two days. I am convinced that yoga speeds recovery time, helping as it does to circulate the blood, breath, sweat, and lymphatic fluids through the body, so I did manage to roll out my mat each day. The first day wasn't pretty, but I got 'er down. The second day I was strong and a tad bit more flexible. Tonight's practice will (fingers crossed) cure me entirely.
The other upside of being sick is that between naps I had no energy for anything but reading. My next MFA mentor-group reading conference (think "online book club for writing craft nerds") is on Moby Dick, and while I've got a ton still to do in our whale of a book (hehe...), I've been dying to finish William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways first.
The reason for Blue Highways is that it's a journey book, and I've been on-and-off at work on a piece (short story? book length?) about my time on the road with my band. In Heat-Moon's own words, "I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected." He was philosophical. In 2006 I simply packed myself, my then-husband (aka, the drummer), a bass player, and a bunch of instruments into a van fueled on vegetable oil so we could play some gigs.
As it turns out, Heat-Moon was also way more self-aware than I was. And more patient. What I felt in Alabama after a few weeks took him till Minnesota on page 284: "Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: sever irritability."
On our tour, my bandmates and I were tethered to each other, the gig calendar, and a map. We slept mainly on people's floors, sometimes their extra beds, a handful of times in motels, and once on a bar room floor after the club closed for the night (WI). There was one waterbed (PA), two laundromat gigs (CA and TX), more vegetable oil fuel than we could stow (GA), fried peanuts (also GA), a cowboy reporter with purple boots (TX), a hookah bar in an airplane hangar (NC), a martini named after me (OR), three shows in Manhattan (NY and KS), and an ex-brothel (AR). We went through two sets of tires, one windshield, and countless gallons of vegetable oil. I was charmed by Kansas, smitten with Texas, adored Ashland, and wanted to love New Hope, PA but had a nervous breakdown instead. In the end, I crossed from Atlantic to Pacific twice and Pacific to Atlantic once. The last A-to-P was sans bass player - we left him in Virginia without so much as a hug good-bye. Being on the road is tough, but it was a true journey in many ways.
And although my then-husband is now remarried-with-child and settled back on the east coast, I'm a born-again California girl. Just yesterday, despite my cold, I said to Darby, "You know, whatever hardship comes along, there's always the fact that we live in beautiful California." He agreed.
Incidentally, in my current state I have learned that I am not actually sick as in "sick as a dog". This phrase apparently has its origins in the fact that dogs will eat anything and as a result become sick to their stomachs. Nor am I "sick as a parrot", as the British say, which is also more like the stomach flu due to seafaring parrots' taste for the rotting fruit aboard sailing ships. Nor am I "under the weather", a phrase also supposedly taken from the sea, for the sick were sent to the more stable below-deck rooms to ease their suffering. (For your information - and note to myself - my brief research revealed that many of the feelin' illin' idioms come from sea travel. This reinforces my aversion to vacation cruises.)
What I am is simply tired, congested, head-achy, and sneezy. I can't find a single cute idiom for it. Given these forthright symptoms, you'd think I might find a suitable over-the-counter remedy, however neither Dayquil nor Sudafed have helped my condition. I am open to your suggestions. For now, as much as possible, I'm resting, reading, and yoga-ing. Also, for whatever reason, I have been craving tapioca pudding, and so have indulged to my satisfaction.
"Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more."
- From Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
Yesterday was the last day of my first residency. While I was at school, Darby and the girls gussied up the house for the holidays. They hung their red and hot pink with gold lame handmade stockings over the fireplace screen. They draped white lights over Ganesha on the mantle. Our old friend, the styrofoam snowman, was planted back in the soil of the potted plant where he sits every winter. The handful of holiday cards we've received so far this season were set up on display. The girls assembled our vintage two-foot-high aluminum tree, hung their ornaments, and plugged in the accompanying color light wheel by the fireplace where the money tree used to be before the roots rotted from my over-zealous watering earlier this year. Hanukah's been over for a while but we tend to pack the holiday decorations all together. Darby made a centerpiece of two plastic dreidels, a cactus, and a frosty-the-snowman cookie tin for the silver thread dining room tablecloth. I walked in the front door at 5 p.m. to a living room bedazzled with glitter and tinsel. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This must be what Rip Van Winkle felt like when he awakened from his slumber of a hundred years. On the top shelf of our fridge is a sweet potato I baked before school started. I suppose I should compost it, but a part of me still doesn't believe two weeks have passed. I missed Emerson's holiday choir concert, and Esme's acting class presentation. I missed the newest batch of released music, the primary project I oversee at my day job. I've missed emails, New York Times headlines, and Facebook updates. I've missed details never to be recalled about Darby's life.
But what would have been missed had I not folded into this MFA program? There’s a lot that’s in theory right now, but I’m pretty sure that once I sit down and actually start writing (I don’t know if this almost stream-of-conscious blog counts) I’ve got a new set of awareness and inspiration to work with. I’ve blogged before about 40-day transformation practices. If I consider these ten days as the beginning of another set of forty, I wonder by mid-January how my writing practice will have changed.
It is nearly 9 a.m. and I am sitting here at the table, writing by the light of day streaming through the dining room windows. Faint but distinct synth chords and a melody that Darby has been working on come floating down the hall. The girls are watching Hairspray, both wrapped up in their comforters munching on Honey O's cereal, and I am typing to a little dance number featuring John Travolta in a pink sequin dress.
This morning, before the coffee, before the disco music, before I even opened my eyes to the morning light, Darby held me in his arms and whispered over and over, "I got my woman back, I got my woman back, I got my woman back."
When I think of my favorite Boston bookstores, I immediately think of the independently run Harvard Book Store with the wide glass window display of new releases and local interests, taking up nearly half a block of Mass. Ave heading towards Central Square, just after the Leavitt & Peirce tobacco shop. I must have biked or walked past this shop thousands of times in the thirteen years I lived around Boston. Many evenings, with nothing urgent calling, I stood in the yellow glow of the bright glass windows, letting my mind wander and my eyes graze over the covers on display. Sometimes I would file a title away in my mind, something to look into later, and then keep walking past. Other times my curiosity pushed me through the front door into the stacks, and I'd leaf through crisp pages, loosen my scarf and unbutton my coat as my eyes wandered to another shelf and picked up another book. Time slipped by in those visits, but it never felt wasted. Often before leaving the shop, for some unknown reason, I'd head to Fiction - W just to be sure that my favorite author was still in stock. I went too often to be surprised with a new Jeanette Winterson release, but it gave me comfort to see the familiar spines.
I also think of The Trident Booksellers and Cafe, which is not ruined for me despite the year I worked there, managing the cafe. The Trident is on the Boston side of the Charles River. I discovered David Sedaris in that shop, and Kathleen Dean Moore. There is the travel section with Lonely Planet books for every region, and I fantasized about where on earth I would go. There are shelves for all kinds of spirituality that I had never heard of until my first time there, on a field trip into the city with some of my undergraduate friends. Always a greedy journaler, comparative shopping for the most pages per penny, it was at the Trident that I first discovered the Moleskin journals, and abandoned the hard-backed sketch books I used in my Brandeis days for the extra-large soft-cover unlined Moleskin with the trademark pocket in the back I started to use at Berklee.
Sometimes, rarely, and mostly just for the restroom, I wandered into the Harvard Coop, now owned (I believe) by Barnes and Noble. It's a grand building now - if I recall correctly it was renovated back in the mid-'90s - with a winding staircase up to a book-lined balcony, but the selection never captured my attention like the Trident's or the Harvard Book Store. Still, there were rainy days I took refuge at the cafe on the second floor or spread my reading out on a table looking down into the atrium.
I once caught a snippet of a tour guide's speech about Cambridge having more book stores per square mile than any other city in the world. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, for both independent book and music stores alike. In those years, I was happily oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industry that was taking place across the rest of the country, wiping out independent stores and streamlining the interests of America in what I now have the lexicon to call "intellectual colonization".
Now in Los Angeles, I miss those Boston bookstores. Yes, just yesterday I wrote about the magic of this city built on rock and roll, but it is also a literary desert. Half of the books on my shelf were acquired from the literary division during the year I worked for International Creative Management, one of the top talent agencies. A few weeks ago, discovering that the library closed early on Fridays, I drove around aimlessly searching for a place to buy the book I was (insanely) desperate to begin. The night ended with margaritas, but sadly no book.
However, lest you weep in sorrow for my plight, I can happily tell you that just three blocks from my house, along the Chandler bike path, there is The Iliad. Literally, it is (I believe) one of only three bookstores in the whole San Fernando Valley. (Actually, I am being generous here -- I can only think of two off-hand now that the Aroma Cafe shop closed, but even that was more gift boutique with a few compelling titles than a serious book store.) The other night, with my semester's reading list in hand, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, my head crooked to one side, reading every spine in search of the books on my list. It is a used bookstore, scented with the mustiness of old pages and attended by unkempt introverts. I found all but five of my books (truth told, I forgot to look for two of them), and now have a stack next to my bed and a warmth in my heart that at the very least there is this one place of book lover refuge nearby.
It's funny that today I am thinking so much of Harvard Square and the bookstores of Boston. You'd think I'd be filled with thoughts of these past days at Antioch. But maybe there's something to this reaching for the past while moving forward on this new endeavor.
Yesterday in a workshop on narration and reflection, we read (and re-read) (and then re-read again) the Joan Didion essay "Goodbye to All That" about her time in NYC as a young woman. Maybe while I slept last night I turned over her New York into my Boston. Reading and talking about writing gives a framework, a structure through which to talk/think/write about the past. After seven years here in Los Angeles, my memories of Beantown have softened a little, the background noise has become more muffled. Meanwhile, the highlights have brightened, the distinct moments have become more pronounced. Luckily we humans cannot remember everything. How that would crush us in nostalgia. Hemingway was only able to write about Paris when he was back in Michigan. So now here in Los Angeles, maybe it's time to write about Boston.
Here's the final list for my Project Period (subject to change):
1. Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas
2. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
3. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
4. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Wolf
5. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
6. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
7. Light in August, William Faulkner
8. Plainwater, Ann Carson
9. Here is Where We Meet, John Berger
10. Beloved, Toni Morrison
11. Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
12. The Golum and The Jinni, Helene Wrecker
I write a lot about doubts because I have so many. I spent the first half of my life -- actually, perhaps the first two-thirds -- accidentally incorporating other peoples' fear-based beliefs into my own psyche. Metaphorically, in a right-handed world I was a lefty who was taught, and later bought, the story that right-handedness was the way I should be. An artist must struggle, according to the lore I was handed, and can either starve or give up the art. I tried both of those options for years before I became suspect about the credibility of my source.
These options -- to either starve or give up -- are not the only possibilities. That emperor has no clothes. There is actually nothing to support that narrative except the perpetuation of that story.
When I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, the city itself cracked open the false front of that narrative. It is a fear-based and limited story, and Los Angeles reveals the ridiculousness of it every day. This city is built on and by creative artists of all types. L.A. is a testament to the power of vision. You can talk about the smog or the traffic jams or the sky high real estate prices, but if you really want to talk about the essence of L.A., you've got to talk about dreams, and that dreams come true.
In sixth grade I participated in my class's lip sync contest, bouncing around the gym in colorful '80s leg warmers, mouthing the words to the Starship hit song that year: We built this city on rock and roll. I've rarely thought about that song since. Were they singing about Los Angeles?
The other day in the Breath and Writing workshop, we focused on the physical act of breathing, and also the way that breath comes across in writing. Then, after two minutes of matched inhales and exhales, we put pen to page and were asked to write about the thing that resides in the deep, hidden folds of our breath. I found myself bored with fear and doubt. I've written enough about those things. Instead, I flipped the coin over and explored a new story. My pen tested out another line of thought, one about possibility, limitless and authentic expression, accepted and applauded vision.
There's a story I sometimes talk about in my yoga classes about a man walking down the street and falling into a pothole. Perhaps you've heard it before. A man walks down the street, and everyday stumbles into the same pothole. One day the man walks down the street, and while he stumbles into the pothole, he sees it first. This is his awakening. He still falls, but he is aware for the first time that the pothole is his pattern. Later, the man walks down the street, and sees the pothole before he stumbles. That day he instead has the consciousness to walk around the pothole. In the final piece of the story, he eventually takes a different road entirely.
I am not yet on a different road. I've been writing about the pothole, still often stumbling in, sometimes able to walk around it. Sometimes I end up circling it for days on end, peering into its depths. In the Breath workshop this week I took a test stroll down another street. It was sloppy and I felt the pull back to my old familiar territory.
Doubt and faith are bedfellows that cannot occupy the same space. I've been sleeping with doubt for too long, but faith is still a new companion. Seven years in Los Angeles, and every year I find a little more faith. Who would have thought that this city of heathens would teach me this, but it is, and as time unfolds I learn more.
Here is a David Whyte poem that I always remember, nearly every day when I am gripped with self-doubt. I am thinking of it again today.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
-- David Whyte