On The Cusp Of A New Year
It feels different, this year, the final holiday season of my thirties. I've been tearing through the last pages of my journal trying to reflect on the decade, but then I get side-swiped by my dreams of what's around the bend, and instead of looking back, I'm looking forward because there is so much that excites me, so many words and songs and experiences, and so much love.
I'm also thinking about my Meyers-Briggs type. I just retook the test and upon reflection, twenty years after the first assessment (that was all theoretical because I had hardly lived at all), the INTJ now makes so much sense. There is something comforting about knowing who I am, here on the cusp of my forties, rather than wondering who I will become, as I did at the beginning of my twenties. The seeming disconnect of all my wanderings, interests, and curiosities are beginning to show their ties. There's an intersection where they all meet, and just like with you, despite the 7 billion other breathing humans on this planet, this place within me is unique. My desires to create something meaningful in this lifetime are wholly my own, and though they may seem like a tangle of knots to an outsider, I am starting to see the interconnectedness of my history, present moment, and future dreams.
I don't know what I think about growing old. I figure I have a whole other lifetime - another forty years - to decide. What I do know is that I am glad to no longer be so young. I know enough about myself to sense where I shut down and need to soften. I know where I am open and hope to remain so. I know where my sadnesses and angers reside, and I'm not afraid to explore them. I know what excites my spirit, and I want to live more in those spaces.
After (almost) forty years, I know this about myself: I am curious, independent, logical, insightful, passionate, resourceful. I set my own standards, and they are high. I think more is possible than impossible, and it bores me to hear otherwise. I desire a calm life, a just community, coherent narratives. I want to study alone without interruption, push myself beyond my current limitations. I seek challenges, and often need to meet them alone.
But, I am not a hermit. I adore community and its ever-expanding nature, I love connecting with a friend over a hike or tea or wine, I love hearing the things that make other people's heart beat faster, I revel in the original ideas of others, savor the excitement of friends, family, acquaintances and people I admire. I have little patience for what a former mentor of mine used to call "crazy-makers".
My brother wants to know my New Year's resolution. I never make them. I make lists instead, lists of 100 things to do in the year. I won't get to all 100, but the list is a place where, looking out at the coming twelve month span, I write tangible and abstract ideas to grabble with or get done. Marry Darby. Watch sarcasm with kids. Plant window box. Some will definitely be completed. Some are immeasurable. Some end up on the list year after year. Perhaps this year I'll finally find some plants to thrive in that damn box.
But, I suppose I do have a resolution for my forties. When I look back on the past ten or twenty years I remember too much timidity, too many apologies. What good did that do? My path was cobbled with all the qualities above, but also with something else that seems to fit the category of shame. One of the interesting points the INTJ assessment notes is that only 1-3% of women in the US population share this type. (2-4% of men, I think it noted.) In that light, I can see how I apologized many times for simply interpreting the world and all its possibilities in a different way than others do. Now that I see it, I must admit that I like my way of seeing the world. Not to say I don't have shortcomings - of course I do - but I feel fairly aware of them, and continually work to minimize them. In fact, I enjoy the challenge of mollifying my sharp edges.
So, my resolution for my forties is this: To quickly and easily apologize for my trespasses. To feel compassion for others, for we all have our own paths, our own stories, our own inner work to do in this lifetime. And, yet, I resolve also to not apologize for those trespasses which are not my own. To not shrink from my true desires. To live according to my own standards, desires, needs. To know that things others see as impossible endeavors, or too challenging to pursue, are not my own impossibilities, are not my own barriers. In this coming decade I resolve to live and love fully, intentionally, and to cherish as many of those moments as possible.
From Where We Stand
This post originally appeared in the journal Lunch Ticket on December 12, 2014: http://lunchticket.org/stand/
Last night over dinner, after a discussion with our ninth-grader about some challenges she’s grappling with in her personal life, our fifth-grader suddenly asked, “What’s your super power?”
I glanced over to her smiling, mischievous face. One of our fifth-grader’s own super powers is the ability to bring levity to difficult moments. She flipped open a sketch book as I thought of our ninth-graders’ worries and wondered if the fifth-grader’s super power will withstand her own impending adolescence.
“Here,” she said, clicking her mechanical pencil for more lead. “I’ll tell you the choices.”
In shaky cursive she wrote a list. Water, Fire, Magic, Weather, Nature.
“Nature means you can talk with animals,” she explained. This is another super power of our fifth-grader. At the barn where she takes riding lessons, she is a veritable Dr. Doolittle. She’s a calming presence among the horses, miniature donkeys, cats, goats, and dogs. There’s even a llama named Ginger who comes when she calls.
Our ninth-grader leaned on the table to get a closer look at the list. “I’m fire. Definitely fire.”
I exhaled a laugh. Even our ninth-grader chuckled. It’s true, she is fiery. Language has never been a shortcoming for either girl, but our ninth-grader’s eyes easily flash with lightning and her tongue lashes quickly when she senses an attack on her ego or an injustice in her world. Though these girls are not related to me by blood--they are my stepdaughters--I remember being exactly like our ninth-grader in this regard when I was her age.
“I’ll tell you the characteristics that go with fire,” the fifth-grader said. In a professorial voice, she cheerfully wrote the words on her sketch pad as she spoke. “Fire: Angry. Destructive. Fighting. EVILLLLL!!!!!” She giggled with mock terror.
Our ninth-grader nodded, “Yep. That’s me. Definitely fire.” Her face was neutral, as if this latest trouble had finally doused her fight, and a bit sleepy because it had been a long Monday.
“I’m water,” I volunteered. “I can drink enough water to save a city from a flood. I could’ve saved New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.” I don’t know when I started with the water thing, but it’s been at least since high school that I’ve carried some wherever I go. I only buy purses if they can hold a bottle, and panic a little if there’s no place to refill.
“Katrina!” The fifth grader cried with excitement. “That’s her superpower too!”
Suddenly I realized what we were talking about. These are the superpowers of the main protagonist and her all-female posse in the book our fifth-grader has been writing and illustrating since third grade. The book was inspired by a game she and her friends used to play at recess. They don’t play it anymore, but recently she informed me that she’s on the second draft of the story.
Sitting at the table with the girls, I was suddenly struck by the present moment, and how the three of us held such different awareness of it. The fifth-grader will do almost anything to keep a positive atmosphere. The ninth-grader is invested in protecting her point-of-view. I am mostly interested in doing whatever I can to help these kids navigate their early years so that they grow to be the best version of themselves.
As the conversation shifted back to the ninth-grader’s recent challenge, I asked a question here and there, partly to help me understand the events, but mostly to help her clarify them for herself. Right now, of course, it is the end of the world. She struggles because she doesn’t quite know who she is becoming, and has no perspective of the process. At fourteen she’d like all the gates open so she can rush forward, but she has no idea what she’s rushing to. As parents, we try to monitor the gate, regulate the speed, and pull her back in when things are going too far and too fast.
The last time I participated in conversations like these, I was the teenager. The beauty of being on the parent side is that time has bestowed perspective. On the cusp of forty I have, at the very least, the wisdom to listen and question, and the experience to consider perspectives other than the limited teenage point-of-view.
Lately I’ve been reading essays-in-progress. Some of them are from the Lunch Ticket submission box, others from my colleagues in the MFA program, some from friends who have asked for my feedback. Many of us writers use the page to explore events of our past, and childhood and early adulthood are particularly rich mines. What I’ve noticed as I read through these works-in-progress is that many pieces limit themselves in perspective, despite the wisdom and intelligence of the writer. I imagine that these writers have carried their pain of long-ago events for so many years that they believe the catharsis will come from simply writing their story down. The fact is, we are all the recipient of time’s gift of perspective. Perspective is the power--super power, if you will--of being a writer.
As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. While my ninth-grader wallows in her somber thoughts, I, long past those teenage years, can see the hole she’s digging for herself. I can see the holes I dug for myself at that age. As a writer, thinking back to my own childhood events, it is much more healing—and as a reader, light-years more interesting–to go beyond the teenage perspective.
As I read these essays-in-progress I sometimes find myself silently begging the author, “What do you, the narrator, think of this now?” Instead of using the pen to only relive childhood events, insert adult insight into those baffling, emotionally-wrought experiences. Let the grown-up wisdom comingle with teenage emotions.
As 13th century German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote, “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart… Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
Know what power I wish I had at fourteen? The power to simultaneously hold both the child experience and the adult perspective. Alas, that comes with age. But after living these years, why, when writing our own stories, would any writer eschew this great power?
The pen is perhaps the most powerful tool any of us has. How can we communicate or enact change in the world if we cede our own self-understanding? Go ahead, write down those untamed childhood experiences, but lasso them with the perspective of time. When we read your insights, we too transform. Tell me your story of then, from where you stand now.
The Two I’s
This post originally appeared in the journal Lunch Ticket on November 14, 2014:
Back in September, in the midst of a submission deluge for our upcoming Winter/Spring issue (out next month), our fair blog posted a piece On The Importance of Following Submission Guidelines. I know you read it, because afterwards there were far fewer single-spaced, comic sans, 10-pt. font essays in our CNF pile. Still, quite a few submissions, meticulously crafted I am sure, included personal disclosures we have specifically requested be left off. This never ceased to cause a few face-palms here in the reading room. Dear friends, please, do not ruin your beautiful essays and stories by revealing your identity—LT reads blind by choice.
Yet, by and large, y’all did a nice job with the submission guidelines. I hate to admit it, but honestly, at the belly of the bulge, none of us wants to have our submissions rejected because the reader’s eyes are too tired to battle single-spacing. And yet, readers’ eyes do tire.
Now, our submission window has closed. I’m on the copyediting team also, and so am currently re-reading the CNF and Diana Woods Memorial essays that we accepted for publication. I am giddy with excitement about releasing these beautiful pieces out into the world for more readers. Also, as I peruse these works for errant typos and the evil two-spaces-after-a-period that we LTers disdain, I am reflecting on what particular qualities pushed these particular essays into our thumbs-up pile.
So what is it about these particular essays?
[First, let me reiterate: I am not talking about fiction or YA. Currently, I only read for Lunch Ticket’s CNF section and the DWM prize.]
In personal essay and memoir, of course there is an “I.” In fact, there are two: there is the I of the past, and the I of the future. The past I is the one in the situation described in the essay; the present I is that of the narrator. In personal essay, the narrator is the writer.
The stellar essays in our submissions box recognized that the present-I—the voice of the narrator—is the one that truly harnesses an essay’s power and vitality. As readers, this is generally the one that keeps us reading. Why? Because the narrator is wise. A good narrator makes the personal story of the writer into a universal story for the reader.
The marginalia I most often noted on a thumbs-down essay was this: that the story was surely interesting to the writer, but needed more reflection and exposition to make it interesting to the reader. Don’t be afraid, I wanted to note, to let the narrator delve into self-inquiry. We readers want this, because your self-inquiry becomes our self-inquiry. We are terribly interested in ourselves. In the end, this is why we read. To better understand ourselves.
Is this confusing? Philip Lopate, author, media critic, and Columbia University professor of writing, says this:
“In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”
The past-I, caught in the moment of the situation, is likely unprepared for whatever conflict arose, and reacts in the spur of the moment. However, the present-I, the narrator, has the wisdom of now, the power of reflection. Hindsight’s 20-20, right?
Use this power, Lopate urges. He goes on to say, in fact, that this double perspective is an obligatory aspect of memoir/personal essay. Not only that, he says, but “this second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity.”
Take a sip of your coffee. Swallow. It’s worth lingering over his wording here—“an opportunity.” When Lopate says “opportunity,” he is calling attention to the very act of writing, and the way this very act changes the writer. Writing personal essay should be a revelatory process. Lopate says we must let it be that. We must allow the intelligent, wise present-I narrator emerge, because personal essay and memoir writing is a journey of exploration.
It is this very exploration, this very struggle, that makes writing vital, not just to the writer, but to the readership. This is the bridge between the inner life and the rest of humanity.
After all, when we send out our work for publication, isn’t this what we hope for? Connection? Recognition? Doesn’t our heart warm when a stranger’s words leap from the page or the screen, and we suddenly feel that, yes, someone, understands?
MFA semester 3: day 2. My little Pony.
Earlier this week I wrote a blog for the journal Lunch Ticket, partly recounting a recent evening with my kidlets. Shiloh was attempting to flipswitch a challenging conversation we were having with Rose who is fourteen and in the midst of interesting fourteen-year-old questions and social dynamics. In the blog post, I mentioned a list of super powers Shiloh asked us to look over. The powers were based on characters in a book Shiloh has been writing. We were each to say which super power we believed we possessed.
Prior to this particular set of super powers, Shiloh presented us with another list of qualities based on one of her favorite shows, My Little Pony. The ponies have names like Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie, and each has a primary quality like honesty, magic, generosity, etc. Shiloh had been commenting on her dad's generosity and said he was like the Pony named Rarity. I agree -- generosity is one of Darby's top qualities. I'd also add kindness and integrity, but I don't know the Ponies well enough to know which ones to name.
Shiloh then asked me which Pony I think I am most like, and wrote down the names and qualities for us all to consider. Rainbow Dash is loyalty, and I said that was probably my primary quality. Something I know about myself is that I tend to be fiercely loyal, sometimes way beyond the natural arc of a relationship. Once someone has worked their way into my heart, they are always there, but I wonder sometimes if it is also not always quite appropriate. After all, there are times a Pony should walk away. Nonetheless, I do consider myself loyal.
Majority rules in our house, though, and Darby and the girls all chimed in that I was more like Applejack whose primary quality is honesty. This surprised me, and I found my mind turning back to it while commuting here to school this morning. It is true that honesty is important to me. In fact, this might be my draw to write CNF. Creative nonfiction -- isn't it the ever deeper dig for truth and self-honesty? I do try to approach my writing this way, but while driving through Hollywood and into Culver City on this glistening, post-Pineapple Express Storm morning, I began to consider where my insistence on honesty comes from, and how I express it in life. Since I'm at the MFA residency this week, and especially since yesterday was the first of four meetings with my week's writing workshop group, my mind fell also into considering how I bring this quality into these workshops, and whether I present it in a positive or negative way.
In considering where my need for honesty comes from, I lighted upon some elementary-school childhood memories. When I was around Shiloh's age, I was a big fat liar. For about two years I stopped doing homework, but always said I did. I practiced clarinet far less than the practice log I kept for my private teacher noted. But then, I recall one day after school, perhaps in fifth or sixth grade, as I walked down the hill from the bus stop, rehearsing in my mind the story I would tell when my mother asked me what I did that day. Still a few houses before mine, I came to a dead stop on the road. Everyday, I realized in that moment, I created a story, something barely more entertaining than the real events, to tell my mother. You don't have a couch and I don't have the time, so let's not get into a psychoanalysis of why I did it. Suffice it to say, at that moment I stopped lying. Or, in the spirit of deep self-honesty, I'll say this: perhaps in that moment I didn't stop lying entirely, but I became more mindful about it. Whereas before the lies had been random, from then on they were purposeful. After that, if lied, it was a choice rather than a pattern.
Several decades have passed, and with only twenty minutes till the day's first seminar, we still haven't time for a therapy session. Over the years, the truth has become more and more important. When I studied the Yoga Sutras, I was delighted to find honesty and compassion two qualities listed side-by-side, neither trumping the other. This struck a chord in my mind. In every moment, according to the Sutras, we must try to be both kind and true. Sometimes this is ridiculously easy, but there are other moments when it challenges me deeply.
As I mentioned, yesterday was the first meeting for our week's writing group. Every residency we have a different group of five to eight students. This time there are six of us plus a mentor to facilitate the discussion. The first day is an introduction, just an hour to say our names and where we live, etc., and to learn how the mentor prefers to lead the next three sessions. Each following session will be three hours, which breaks down to around 90 minutes discussion per piece over the course of the week. Reverse alphabetical order is a popular mode here, so like last semester, the twenty pages I submitted (last name: Silver) will be the first piece our group discusses.
The point of these workshops is two-fold: to receive feedback on our writing, and also to learn how to deliver feedback on others' writing. Actually, it's three-fold because there is also the element of observing our mentor and learning her particular teaching method. Many of us will go on to teach writing. I value these opportunities to study with different mentors each time, and have been keeping notes on each of their particular styles.
One factor that I appreciate in this particular mentor's introductory agenda is that after we each shared basic personal information, we went around the room again. This time we each were given the opportunity to discuss, in a cursory way, the piece we'd brought in for critique. I admit, I was wary of whether this activity would be helpful. Without revealing details on the writers or their work, however, I noticed that my opinion of each of my colleagues rose considerably in this portion of the meeting. I didn't think *poorly* of them before. It's just that when they each spoke about their piece and what they were trying to achieve, I shifted from, perhaps, neutral into a deeper sense of respect. As they shared their vision, I developed a deeper understanding of the struggles they had dealt with in writing these first draft excerpts. It was their struggle, I think, that connected me, because in the end, writing is a struggle. It is a constant search for how on earth to explain truth. How to take what is in our hearts and souls and present it to strangers in a way that they will understand.
This morning, I found myself thinking of the qualities each of my colleagues in this group possesses. I don't know the others terribly well, so it's mostly guesswork. But in light of my Applejack personality, I made a mental note to be sure to bring Rarity and the compassion/kindness-Pony into my discussion of others' work.
These posts are unrefined, I know. They are first thoughts in the early mornings before class. There is no time for proof reading or revising. Let's toast to imperfection!
Back East we had storms like "Andrew", "Bertha", "Katrina". Here on the West coast things are a bit less understated. We have the Pineapple Express. It roared into Los Angeles station around ten last night, right on schedule, creaking branches and roofs as it blew, throwing trash cans into the road, putting out traffic lights. I was up half the night huddled under three layers of bedcovers listening to the clanging wind chimes until Darby braved the downpour and took them down. The other half of the night I was awake in antsy anticipation for the first day of the new semester. Here, finally, I am.
Colleagues are trickling into the break room where I again sit blogging. It's a ritual now. I plan my daily arrival for an hour prior to the first seminar and type away. I wonder if this is partly my introverted way of eeking out a bit of non-social time in the morning before diving into twelve-hour clusters of interaction. The idea originated from a self-curiosity. At the start of my first residency last December I was interested to chronicle my MFA experience to see how my mindset changed over the course of the program. Now, on my third residency intensive (with at least another two to go), I wondered if I should bother with the early morning blog session. After all, we sit for such long seminar hours. Even in the rain, perhaps this time would be better spent walking. Or, now that my introverted self has grown accustomed to the faces and rooms, perhaps I could venture into early morning conversation. I wondered this aloud to a colleague as we picked up our registration packets and walked together to the break room.
"I don't know. At this point your blogging is a tradition," she said.
Ah, the magic word, tradition. Or, in Topol's voice, TRADITION!!!!!!
Welp, it's true. So here I am. In the break room. Day 1 of the residency. Welcome back, Antioch.
Writing about illness
Researching the 3rd semester academic paper
Genre writing workshop (CNF)
Evening graduating student readings