- Some times things nag at me, for no apparent reason. Car titles have been nagging me recently. I dug in my file box, found them, and am no reassured that I know where the title to each car is….another obsession down the drain.
- I owed many people gratitude who helped me during my Hospital Tour, Spring 2009. I started writing thank you cards. I got a bunch of them done in May, but was interrupted by , yes, a trip to the hospital. I finally got back to the cards today, wrote the unfinished ones, and mailed them all off…..a weight lifted.
- I ate a tasty probiotic dinner of Bubbies sauerkraut with a couple (not biotic) Bavarian Brats on the side. I so enjoyed this probiotic dinner that I ate a little container of Nancy's yogurt and enjoyed it so much I got out a little granola, poured another Nancy's over it and spooned some Greek God honey yogurt on top of it for good measure. All the good bacteria in my gut welcomed the company.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Thursday, July 30, 2009
- Out of nowhere, Jane, a friend from thirty-six years ago, from my days as a student at North Idaho College, appeared in my Facebook life and we had a series of wondrous conversations about, among other things, people we knew, old friends who have passed away, dogs, writing, and what we've been doing all these years to get to where we are today. Simply put: scintillating.
- Today, I sometimes envied Snug's instincts for finding cool places in the house in the midst of the current heat wave, especially because most of them were on the floor where he could lie and relax and stay below the heat.
- The Deke is working her ass off to help Molly and Hiram and Olivia in Denton, TX and I've appreciated her emails and our telephone conversations, appreciated being kept abreast of how any number of tasks and difficult challenges are going. The best news: Olivia is doing great.
Both male and female students do it.
They see me as an instructor, a role, and not as the person I am.
I can't think of one instance where the men and women who abstract me in this way are abstracting me in a positive way.
These are students who have come to distrust teachers, or, sometimes, it's a distrust of those with authority.
Of course, I see myself as trustworthy, caring, bending over backward to do right by my students; I'm on the students' side. I'm their ally. I do all I can to communicate these more personal aspects of myself as a teacher, and still, I have certain students, a small number, who persist in being sullen, defensive, distrustful, contrary, as if I am just like the other teacher or teachers who have done something to discourage or hurt them in the past.
For many years, this occasional phenomenon bothered me a lot. For years, I took it personally and wondered how I was failing to communicate that I'm a nice guy, a good person, not like those others.
What I really wanted was for these students to forget or let go of their past and see me for who I am, not as an embodiment of those who had hurt them in the past.
I've come to realize that this is a very difficult move.
I know, in part, because of the difficulty I have making the same move.
In my work, I don't trust people in power, namely administrators of our college. When dealing with administrators about matters of school business at LCC, I assume I'm being lied to, massaged, manipulated, shaped, patronized, spun, politicked, and that none of it occurs for my benefit as a faculty member.
Now, on a personal level, if I run into one of the few administrators I know, and when we chat about family or a movie or what we did over the weekend, I find these bosses to be wonderful, decent, and good people. That I don't trust them in their capacity to manage my work life has little or nothing to do with their personal character.
Or whether I like them.
Moreover, if any of these administrators is telling the truth in a meeting or a speech, I can't hear it. Because of their role, or their position, when they talk about budget or faculty workload or contract negotiations or their administrative philosophies, I hear lies and manipulations.
Administrators have burned too many people and programs for me to believe them, and, I repeat, even if they are telling the truth.
I should add that this distrust is not the result of my deliberations. I didn't sit down one day and reason my way, through decision making (or choice), to the way I feel. It's more primal than that, rawer. It's in my gut. I'm responding non-rationally (not irrationally). A defense mechanism is in place, a means of protection, and it originated, not in my cerebrum, but somewhere in the affective depths of my person.
If there were an administrator who wanted me feel differently, that person would be wanting me to deny history, to deny the abuses of truth and manipulations I've seen and experienced. That history is not in the past. It lives in the present and will carry into the future. That's the power of history. It's never over. We can't put it behind us.
I taught at LCC for about ten years with the college's only full-time, permanent black instructor. We became friends. I spent time in his home with his family, enjoyed his river cabin, sat down over Monday Night Football together, smoked cigars in his back patio, and had countless stimulating conversations.
But things would happen. Around hiring new faculty, say. Or around curriculum. My friend would become wary with me, angry, distrustful, accusatory.
It upset me. I'd worked my ass off to support diversity, had been deeply involved at another college as the faculty's Affirmative Action representative. I'd been instrumental in helping hire that college's first black professor. Moreover, not only did I think my credentials were good, he and I were friends.
Why the sudden anger, distrust, wariness, and intensity?
One day, I realized that it wasn't personal. He wasn't angry with me, per se, but with history, the general history of inequity between blacks and whites in our world, but also the history of the college, his long history at the college of being discounted, not listened to, accused of playing the "race card", regarded as marginal because he "had an agenda".
I began to realize that my friend was furious about any number of slights and indignities he'd suffered, as well as his family and community, and when he was wary and angry with me, a deep sense of protection was at work, as well as a deep desire for justice.
Countless times, after one of these incidents, my friend would explain to me what it was like to be a black man on the level of how he saw the world, what the workings of his consciousness were, how his mental processes worked. He told me that since he was educated in white institutions of learning, he'd learned to think like a white person and he succeeded at that; but, he told me, his mind was not unified. He was of two minds. Thinking like a white person was a way of moving through the white world, but primary was his consciousness as a black man.
I read an essay today by Mansfield Frazier, and what he wrote reflected what my friend had said to me almost word for word: "Indeed, the most damnable thing about being a black man in America is the need for the constant reading of mindsets and intentions when we encounter a white person we are not familiar with. Is he, or is he not, a racist? Did he mean what I thought he meant, or was it just my defense mechanisms working overtime? I can tell you that it's damn tiring, and potentially embarrassing."
The constant sizing up. The constant evaluating. The uncertainty. The constant pressing of the past on the present. The fatigue. It's how I am with administrators. I have students who size me up in much the same way. It's how my friend survived at LCC, but it was also what made him one of the most difficult colleagues I've ever worked with.
These thoughts and memories have been swimming around in my head ever since the news of Henry Louis Gate, Jr arrest broke.
For the full Mansfield Frazier article, go here.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
- It was kind of fun. I was up around three this morning to let more cool air in the house and I decided to stay up. I read magazine and newspaper articles online, immersed myself in a stimulating discussion over at 2Blowhards.com, here, wrote emails, and got caught up on the latest controversies in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
- One of the members of the Northwest Inland Writing Project writing retreat divorced her husband and then reconciled and married him again. It's an inspiring story. We enjoyed an email exchange today in response to Sandra Tsing Loh's review/essay in The Atlantic, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", here. Neither of us thought much of what Loh had to say about marriage. My friend has a very positive view of the potential for deep relationships in marriage, in part, because of her experience and, in part, because of her study of a list of books (that she sent me)that have helped inspire her convictions.
- I don't think I've seen Kelly since I dropped out of sight during my Spring 2009 Hospital Tour. We chowed down on burritos at The Laughing Planet and talked about everything from her dog Jack's blindness to the difficulties that have grown out of her son's school burning earlier this summer. Kelly also told me her story of how she and Jason survived when she got pregnant while homeless and wandering the trails of the Grateful Dead.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
- The United State Episcopal Church has opened the door to consecrate gay bishops and to bless same sex unions, here.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rown Williams envisions a two track Anglican Communion, here.
- The full text of The Archbishop of Canterbury's text entitled "Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future" is here.
- Kevin Thew Forrester was elected as the Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan, but many in the Episcopal Church question his fitness to be a bishop because of his inclusion of Zen Buddhism in his practice of faith, his experiments and revisions of The Book of Common Prayer, and his theology regarding the Redemption. Read more about the controversy, here.
- Forrester explains the Buddhist-Episcopalian connection at Father Mark Harris' bog, here.
- Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio denied consent. Read his reasons, here. (I am interested in Bishop Breidenthal's letter primarily because his now-deceased mother, Ruth, was the organist at St. Mary's Episcopal Church here in Eugene for years and his father, Les, has also been a shining light in our parish.)
- News flash: Kevin Thew Forrester fails to receive required consent, here.
- Rachel wrote me the kindest email about the impact the Northwest Inland Writing Project summer writing retreat had on her.
- Since Alex moved to Minnesota, we've had hardly any contact, but we had a nice long chat on Facebook today and I enjoyed remembering how we worked together on her writing and how we always had a good laugh together while we worked.
- Too bad the world doesn't let Margaret, Jeff, Michael and me run the joint. Our discussion over coffee today convinced me that we have all the answers ;).
- Matthew Dallek looks at the many dimensions of Ronald Reagan as president of the USA, here.
- Drake Bennett looks at the complications implicit when old people drive cars. . .and looks at what we can learn from their experience, here.
- Not surpringly, Jim Wallis is an evangelical who doesn't like Sarah Palin, here.
Monday, July 27, 2009
* Jessa Crispin reviews two books, "On Kindness" and "What is Good and Why". She examines these books in the framework of the blogosphere and the contemporary world of the World Wide Web as well as in response to world views reaching back to Hobbes that hold that human beings are innately selfish and brutish. We might actually be wired to be kind. Read her review, here.
* More Jessa Crispin: she review two books examining the depression debate, here.
* Like Jessa Crispin? She's calls herself the book slut and her website is here.
* Virginia Postrel illuminates the complexities of the world of kidney donors and recipients, here.
* Rick Reilly says Tiger Woods needs to clean up his behavior on the golf course, here.
- It was really good to see Father Nick back in the pulpit today. I'm afraid much time will pass until I hear him, or even see him, again.
- The service at the Kiva today seemed especially friendly and made me feel deeply satisfied that I'm slowly becoming a regular again.
- I enjoy knowing that four plump dolmas are sitting in the refrigerator waiting for me to indulge their olive oily goodness one at a time. I won't even try to make them last long. I'll just go back to the Kiva and buy more.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
- The conversation was an intense one, but at least sitting near the river, near the rose garden, in the cool of the morning, with contented people running, walking, and biking by gave us a lovely setting for discussing such unpleasant matters.
- I hadn't seen Melissa since Fat Cats and Underdogs ended in March and we sat down for nearly an hour at the Strand and she interviewed me about my career for a class project. Seeing Melissa was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed explaining my love of teaching and the philosophical underpinnings that shape my work.
- The Atlantic, here, and The New Yorker (July 27, 2009) both ran articles looking at the complexities inside the world of kidney donors and recipients. If you'd like to read the New Yorker piece online, you have to register for the New Yorker online edition. Go to newyorker.com, and look in the right hand rail for a link to click on that will take you to details about doing this.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
2. Why don't I shop at the Kiva more often and buy more Lebanese bologna and dolmas and try out more of their cheeses and maybe buy a small container of chunky potato salad. I've been shopping at the Kiva for twenty-seven years and was a true blue regular there during some of my grad school years, and today, shopping at Kiva brought back the pleasure.
3. There's a lot going on in Denton, TX with the arrival of a new baby and Debbie is working her tail off helping Hiram and Molly get all kinds of things taken care of and I appreciated talking with her about these things several times today. It's hard work for Debbie. But, she's coming to enjoy Texas.
Friday, July 24, 2009
2. I have thousands of files on my external storage drive in countless folders and I continue to work to get them organized and to delete duplicate or triplicate (or more) files and delete files that are no longer useful or important.
3. Dominique and I had a great talk over a cup of coffee. He told me about what direction his studies are headed and gave me a little tour of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
2. I'm supposed to eat probiotic food. I'm supposed to eat foods whose sugar is released into my blood more slowly. Eating fresh peaches slathered with Greek God honey yogurt sure makes it easy to meet these demands.
3. I took the time tonight to turn every month's worth of blog posts I've written into word documents and save them on my external storage drive. It's astonishing to scan what I've written and to see how scrambled my memory is regarding what happened when over the almost three years since I began this blog!
Silver Valley Girl gave us siblings this assignment to write:
"Write about specific things you remember about being at Grandma West's house during the summer."
Inland Empire Girl wrote a moving poem about Grandma's sunroom, here. Silver Valley Girl might write hers when our family vacations at Rockaway Beach. She's got a lot going on!
Our Grandma West lived in Orofino, Idaho, close to the buzzing urban center. Orofino may have buzzed, what with logging trucks barreling to and from local mills and sportsmen loading up their coolers with Schmidt beer and nightcrawlers and heading out to the rivers and creeks of Clearwater County and citizens scurrying in and out of the county courthouse to secure marriage license, license plates, or pay their property taxes, but once night fell, Orofino fell silent and the lights went out.
There was no light pollution in Orofino, Idaho.
Stars began to dot the Orofino sky around 9:30 on August nights, just about the time of our curfew, about the time Molly and Mary and Liz and Craig and the rest of us had to wrap up our games of hide and seek or Red Rover, Red Rover and about the time the humidity began to lift and we scrambled into the house for permission to sleep outside.
I loved sleeping outside in the Stanley's backyard, next door to Grandma.
I loved settling down in a sleeping bag, resting after a morning of playing Monopoly in the Stanley's living room, going upstairs and listening to Liz and Mary's new records, an afternoon of swimming in Orofino pool, and an evening of screaming and giggling, running around, playing games.
Liz was the oldest and she told great ghost stories.
Or else we told stories about our lives, what happened in Orofino during the school year and what it was like living in Kellogg.
Before long, our attention turned to the sky. None of us knew the constellations. We just marveled at the Milky Way and loved it when the Big Dipper came out and someone knew how to find the North Star and knew that it was at the end of the Little Dipper.
Some nights, a satellite would crawl from one end of the sky to the other and meteors would race above us and, on some wondrous nights, we'd be treated to meteor showers.
I don't remember talking about God and the splendors of heaven, but I sure thought a lot about God and sometimes I'd think I could see a face in the stars and the thought that God returned my gaze comforted me. The God of the heaven of the Orofino sky on an August night was the God of ease and gentle delight, a God I could believe was the architect of the heaven that blazed above me.
Comforted, relaxed, refreshed, reassured, serene, dazzled, the cool night air easing me to sleep, I slept deeply, free of the tossing and turning of sleeping in the hot front room at Grandma's.
Memories of sleeping under the stars of Orofino are among my most peaceful. I wanted it be nighttime under the sky forever, but the morning sun didn't cooperate. Around six in the morning, about the time Grandma began watering and harvesting her garden, the sun woke us up and we needed more sleep, so we staggered into the house and flopped on a bed and got more sleep.
It seemed cruel.
To this day, I want a cloud cover every summer day to spare me the glare and the heat of the sun.
To this day, I want the clouds to disappear at night and the stars to blanket the sky.
But here, near downtown Eugene, the light pollution obscures the stars. I go out in my backyard and I hardly know stars exist.
I'm left to remember.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
As our retreat slid into Day 4, on Thursday, I decided I’d done enough instructing. I decided that having presented four principles of writing, a deeper look at leniency, and thoughts on copia that the workshop’s focus should be on what members of the workshop had written in response to the copia/ “The Table” prompt. The pieces workshop members wrote were superb and opened the way for me to do a little reading out loud myself.
I wish I could provide a link to Brenda Peterson’s evocative essay, “Living by Water”. It’s wonderful essay detailing how Peterson came to understand, as she grew into adulthood, that she had to live in the company of water and that water is what nourishes her spirit, imagination, and soul. Peterson moved to the Puget Sound and her essay details not only her love for northwestern Washington, but is a lovely reverie upon the qualities of water, drawing upon science, biology, and the Tao de Ching to deepen her personal observations and meditations.
I read this essay to the workshop for two reasons. First, Peterson’s essay roams from one dimension of the meaning of water to another so that by the time its six or so pages are complete, we, as readers, have experienced water in multiple ways. I hoped that Peterson’s essay might inspire all of us to see the beauty of multi-dimensional writing, to more fully understand how such wandering deepens, broadens, and lengthens the reader’s understanding of a subject, whether in an essay, poem, story, or memoir.
My second reason for reading this essay was to take us back to where our writing had begun. On Monday night, everyone wrote a piece prompted by the words, “I Am From”. I suggested that we return to those pieces and look at it a different way. How about looking at “I Am From” in terms of one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, or air. How about if each person wrote a piece examining what s/he lives by in relation to where each person is from.
On Day 5, several members of the workshop read what they had written. Rachel wrote a Dr. Seuss like piece;Duane examined the water that cannot be seen east of the Cascades, especially in the area around Odessa, his home; Christy wrote about Lake Roosevelt; I presented an unfinished piece called “Making a Living by Earth” and explored the ubiquity of earth and minerals in the lives of those of us who grew up and made our living by earth in the Silver Valley.
There. I don’t know if anyone will read these recaps, but now I have a record of what happened over the course of July 13-17 at Camp N-Sid-Sen on Lake Cd’A. If, in the middle of winter, I think back to this week and my aging, busy, often preoccupied mind can’t remember what happened at the retreat, I know have a record of it.
I’m proud of this record. I left this retreat invigorated and inspired. Such concentrated good writing, good people, and good will made it difficult to leave. I know we can’t be on retreat fifty-two weeks out of the year, but it’s enriching to be able to spend one week this way.
2. The pace in Denton seems to have relaxed a bit in Olivia Cathleen Diaz's second day of life. I haven't heard from The Deke since this morning, a good sign. It's been wonderful to hear that all is going well and that Molly is slowly and surely recovering from the C section.
3. Writing all day meant staying out of the heat. I have to go out tomorrow; it was really nice, though, staying indoors with the fans keeping things cool.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Our third workshop opened splendidly with several members of our group reading their experiments with being lenient.Deep wishes, strong dreams, and wistful tinges of regret surfaced. Our retreat’s inner beauty took shape: those sharing their writing were unconstrained as was the atmosphere of support and respect.
From my perspective, the retreat was moving into a realm of experience deeper than simply getting some writing done. The retreat was becoming spiritual. Not only the spirit of trust, but the spirit of creativity, innovation, experimentation, and exploration pervaded the room. Writers reading freed up other writers to write more bravely. Our retreat’s inner beauty was taking shape.
When, as a teacher, I lay out principles of writing, I know they are also principles of teaching. I have to be authentic. I must be awake and receptive. I’ve got to let it rip. My instruction cannot just be cerebral: it must be located in the body.
In positing the idea of leniency as a central ethic of writing, I was also, implicitly, establishing an ethic central to my work as a teacher (or a visiting writer). In all my years of studying and acting Shakespeare, again and again and again what impresses me most deeply is his generosity. Shakespeare endows character after character after character with a full range of human traits and in all of them, no matter how unlikeable, Shakespeare creates at least a teaspoon of humaneness or at least a sliver of something that moves us to feel some sympathy or empathy with them all.
So, on Day 3, I felt an obligation to deepen our collective understanding of and experience with leniency and, above all, generosity.
When Robert Grudin, in his book On Dialogue, digs deeply into the idea of copia, he opens to door, to those who will enter, into the joy and generosity of thinking and writing about a subject as fully as possible.
The most helpful image in Grudin’s reflections upon copia is when he suggest that the mind is like a prism and when a single thought or idea or image comes, like a single beam of light, into the prism of the mind, the thought or idea or image refracts into countless other ideas or images or thoughts. If, for example, I put the single idea of my newly born granddaughter Olivia through the prism of copia, the idea of Olivia breaks into everything that she stands for in our family’s life: joy, new life, obligations, hospital fees, unprecedented responsibilities, crib, diapers, high chair, nourishment, nurture, beauty, anxiety, clothes, unity, exhaustion, vulnerability, strength, and on and on. One cannot exhaust an idea as full of life as Olivia and to even begin to arrive at the truth of her new life requires a form of thinking that is generous, full of vitality, and at ease with infinitude: such a mode of thought is copia.
In other words, Day 3 of our retreat focused on expanding. Expanding possibilities. Expanding thinking. Expanding feeling. Expanding consciousness. It was about mindfully becoming more generous as a writer.
Together we looked at a poem by George Bilgere. It’s “The Table” and in it you can see how he copiously and generously explores the man dimensions of a family dining table, even as helps to destroy it:
I’m helping my brother-in-law
Knock apart an old table
By the tool shed, a table they’ve loaded
With planting pots and fertilizer bags
For years, until a decade outside
In wind and rain has done it in,
And suddenly, as in a myth
Or fairytale when the son
Recognizes his lost father under the rags
Of an old beggar, I realize
It’s the kitchen table of our childhood,
Where my mother and my two sisters and I
Regathered and regrouped inside
A new house in a new state
After the divorce, where at the end
Of every day
We talked about our day,
Practicing our first fictions
Over pork chops and mashed potatoes
When mom had a job, or fish sticks
Or fried Spam, or chicken pot pies
When she didn’t.
Where we dyed
Our Easter eggs, and played through
Rainy days of Scrabble.
Where I sweated over algebra
And German verbs, and our mother
Would drink a bottle of wine
And lay her head down and weep
Over everything, terrifying us
Into fits of good behavior,
Of cleaning and vacuuming, until
She snapped out of it,
As if nothing had happened
And made it up to us
By doing something crazy,
Like making pancakes for supper.
The table where my uncle
Got me drunk for the first time
And where I sat down for dinner
For the last time with my grandmother.
The table where my sister
Announced she was pregnant.
Where I said that, on the whole, Canada
Looked a lot better than Vietnam.
Where the four of us warmed ourselves
At the fire of family talk.
Plain brown table of a thousand meals.
I’m starting to sweat now, the hammer
Overmatched by iron-grained walnut
Bolted at the joists. It takes a wrench
And crowbar to finally break it down
To a splintered skeleton, to the wreckage
Of an old table, built
When things were meant to last,
Like a hardcover book, or a cathedral,
Or a family. We stack up what’s left
For firewood, and call it a day.
The prompt that grew out of this poem was simple, but would inspire beautiful work: it was to look at a family table or some other item and copiously explore that item’s (or that place’s) many aspects, its copious dimensions.
On Day 4, the workshop opened with another beautifully copious poem, Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”:
She Had Some Horses
She had some horses.
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.
She had some horses.
She had horses with long, pointed breasts.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.
She had some horses.
She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and their bodies shone and burned like stars.
She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making.
She had some horses.
She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer.
She had horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves.
She had horses who said they weren't afraid.
She had horses who lied.
She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped bare of their tongues.
She had some horses.
She had horses who called themselves, "horse."
She had horses who called themselves, "spirit." and kept their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.
She had some horses.
She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.
She had some horses.
She had horses who got down on their knees for any savior.
She had horses who thought their high price had saved them.
She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her.
She had some horses.
She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.
These were the same horses.
Surely one of the cardinal rules is to post once a day so that a reader doesn't have to go beyond the post at the top of the blog to read my most recent pieces.
To hell with that. If you are reading this Interlude, and if you are wondering what I've been up to, just go here to read about what I presented at Day 1 of the writing retreat and go here for Day 2.
Okay. Now. I have a few things I'd like to write and reflect upon regarding my role and preparation as the Inland Northwest Writing Project's Summer Writing Retreat's Visiting Writer.
First of all, in the field of writing, I'm not a big shot. I haven't published a book; I have published a couple of essays and a few poems. I told at least one person at the retreat that when I got hired to lead workshops, the Inland Northwest Writing Project hired a little shot.
I'm definitely a little shot.
I don't think I bring anything special to my role as Visiting Writer because I'm a little shot. I'm happy, however, that the Inland Northwest Writing Project was willing to take a chance on hiring a little shot.
As a community college instructor, I work with little shots. While some of us have presented at national conferences and a few have been published by national publications and one will be publishing an enormously compelling memoir, overall we spend the majority of our time focused on teaching, not building a scholarly resume.
Over the years, I have developed an unusual way of developing pedagogy.
I don't read and haven't (much) read books about teaching writing. I don't read books about teaching strategies. I don't assign my students books explaining how to write. Many excellent poets and fiction writers and memoir writers have written what I hear are wonderful books on writing in these genres. I just haven't read them. Or even looked at them.
When I came to work as a Visiting Writer, a small, but strong voice inside me says I'm a fraud because I haven't read Writing Down the Bones or any of Anne Lamont's books or Julia Cameron's and I've never taken a creative writing course and my reputation as a writer is pretty much limited to those, whom I deeply appreciate, who read my blog.
Oh! And those who have heard me preach. I think some of my best writing happened in the handful of sermons I've given at St. Mary's Episcopal Church.
What I'm getting at here is that much of what I've learned about writing came from sources that weren't dealing with writing at all.
For example, a book that has shaped much of my thinking about writing and has helped me understand my mindset as a writer is Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace. His insight into connectedness, non-duality,being awake, and consciousness shapes how I teach writing and how I've tried to discipline my mind as an observer and agent in my life and has greatly expanded my imagination.
Likewise, Robert Grudin's book On Dialogue is not a writing handbook. Grudin's book explores the power of dialogic thought and the copious ways the mind can work in its pursuit of truth. His book encourages us to give our minds over to expansion, to seeing things as many ways as possible, to give ourselves over to the copious ways the mind works and to delight in the fertility of ideas, not to narrow them or reduce them.
As I write, I try to give myself over to the delights of copia. In my writing instruction, I encourage my students toward the freedoms implicit in thinking dialogically, of writing copiously.
Furthermore, when I read poems or stories or memoirs or philosophy or religion or the Bible or any other piece of writing, I always ask this question: what is this piece of writing telling or showing me about the act of writing itself?
For example, when Jesus instructs his disciples to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves, that's a solid bit of writing instruction, especially when I listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that in these words Jesus was instructing his followers to be tough-minded and tender-hearted.
Again, solid writing instruction.
In the poem, "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender", found here, the speaker of the poem describes Judy Rock's way of being with the gulls:
Knowing her as I do
I know she chose one of them and pursued him
relentlessly—her eye is part of her mind –
and though there would be patter she never would lose him
until he was gone.
Here's what writing demands of us: to zero in, pursue, to do it relentlessly, to unite the eye (and the senses) with the mind, and to commit oneself not to lose the subject of the mind's and sense's focus until it is "gone".
A good lot is going on in Stern's poem. A good lot is going on in the ruminations of Robert Grudin. A good lot is going on in the writings of Thicht Nhat Hanh and the teachings of Buddha. A good lot is going on in the teachings of Jesus and the preaching of Martin Luther King. A good lot is going on in the poetry, stories, memoirs, histories, and other genres of writing in the world.
In one way or another, these writings and teachings, at some level, are instructing us in the ways of writing, or at the very least, giving us models for writing.
So far, it's been reading and thinking this way over the years that has informed my ideas about and practice of writing.
As the Inland Northwest Writing Project Summer Writing Retreat's Visiting Writer, I tried to invigorate those who came to the retreat with the inspiration and knowledge I've drawn from such sources.
It's a Buddhist thing: I've learned the most about writing from sources that weren't about writing at all -- at first glance.
You can read about Day 1 of this writing retreat, here.
And so I wondered, can I lead day to day workshops that hangs together, that are coherent, that work almost like paragraphs in an essay, one day leading right into the next, today's workshop growing out of yesterday's?
In preparing for these workshops, I wondered if it would work to make leniency the central principle of the whole week. I wondered if the four principles I introduced on day one would work as a foundation for looking at the deeper ethic of leniency as a way of thinking about writing and becoming freer as a writer.
In deciding to make leniency the week's central principle, I decided to go public with my deep affection for Gerald Stern's poem, "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender", found here. I've been thinking about this poem for at least fifteen years, its images and insights have informed much of my thinking about writing and informed how I conduct my writing classes as a teacher.
I've never, however, assigned this poem to a class of students. I've never introduced it when leading a workshop. I've been afraid that the poem is a private eccentric pleasure, a poem that speaks deeply to me, but that would not hold power for others. Somewhat timidly, with some restraint at first, I introduced "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender" on Day 2 of the writing retreat.
The group loved it. The poem stirred wonderful discussion and a variety of compelling and enjoyable interpretations. My hope was realized that the poem would help us all see the beauty of being transformed from a stricter, narrower view of the world to a more lenient one, as happens to the speaker in "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender."
And, so, we focused on the poem's climactic question: "Why did it take so long/ for me to get lenient?" and I presented the following ideas regarding why being lenient might be of great help to a writer:
- To "get lenient" first and foremost defines one's attitude toward oneself as a writer: to be lenient with oneself opens the way to being authentic, writing in one's own voice and style because one is accepting of one's own way of doing things when writing; leniency helps one be more awake, more conscious of the world and one's experience because leniency lightens the pressure to be critical, to judge the world. Without prejudice, one is awake to more of the splendor of the world's variety and more awake to it; leniency opens the way to let it rip….it's a stance of acceptance, of forgiveness. Too many writers are stymied by unreal and unrealistic standards. Ease those standards, forgive oneself for a lousy effort, and accept everything one writes and one is liberated. Fear and harshness dissolve. Leniency also frees up the writer who might live mostly in the head to indulge in the sensuous wonder of locating experience in the body, in the senses, of having a more immediate and concrete experience with the world rather than a more objective, analytical, distanced experience.
- Leniency opens up different and fuller way of seeing the world: it's immediate, less critical; seeing the world leniently means seeing much more beauty in the world. For example, the speaker in the poem "Her
Right Eye Catches the Lavender" has lived year after year after year and missed the beauty of gulls He asked, "Why did I never see that?" He had not become lenient. He had decided that gulls were "rats with wings" and "gluttons" and his lack of leniency denied him the gull's wonders.
- Leniency is way of exploring the world and one's experience that is not judgmental and makes anything a possible subject for poetry, memoir, illustration, metaphor, story telling, etc. I've been around countless people who lack leniency; often these people convey the idea that their criticism and negativity is a sign of intelligence.
- A synonym for lenient: generous. The best writers are generous of heart, mind, and feelings and in their insights, observations, and use of language. The hardest writing for me to read is from the stingy, the miserly, the overly constrained, the writer whose omissions lead to dishonesty and distortion.
- Leniency is a way to explore truth. So often we think of truth as what can be documented, as getting what happened right. This is important – but truth is not only about what happened; it's also about what happens…Northrup Frye wrote that we don't go to Macbeth to learn what about the history of Scotland; we go to Macbeth to learn what happens, what a man feels like when he gains a kingdom and loses his soul. Shakespeare is a lenient poet, story teller, and dramatist. All he asks of us is to believe….not suspend our disbelief, but to do the positive thing: to believe….to be lenient…and we do…we watch his plays and look at all the things we believe in, that we are lenient about: we believe in ghosts, disguises, love potions, reunions, a statue coming to life, magic, and other improbable things, not because we believe they happen, but because by being lenient about plausibility, we learn more fully what happens in the larger drama of human nature.
- Leniency in writing frees one to compress events, rearrange chronology, get some facts wrong, embellish something that happened, and make things up whether one is writing poetry, memoir, fiction, or creative non-fiction. Readers who cannot be lenient get stuck on the small elements of what they read, become sticklers for whether a piece gets all the facts right. Such a narrow understanding of human activity often denies such readers access to the larger truths of life because they are zeroed in on what is small. Strictness narrows one's mind. Leniency frees the mind.
I thought the writers at the retreat might enjoy practicing being lenient, and so I recommended three writing prompts, and, indeed, we opened Day 3 of the retreat by listening to some very good pieces of writing that explored the possibilities of seeing an event or an experience from a lenient point of view.
Here are the prompts I recommended:
- Remember a specific event in your life when you were not lenient: maybe you were not lenient with yourself or were not lenient with another person: write the story and when you get to the point where leniency could have occurred but didn't, rewrite what happened. Invite leniency into the story and then imagine the consequences of the leniency and write the story as it didn't happen, but as you now wish it would have.
- Think of someone toward whom it is difficult for you to be lenient or someone who never seemed lenient or kind or tender or compassionate. Invent a situation in which they are lenient or generous or forgiving or tender. You might want to look to Li-Young Lee's poem "The Gift" (see the poem below) as a model….in this poem, Lee either remembers or invents a situation in which his usually distant, overbearing, and demanding father tenderly removes a sliver of metal from his young son's hand.
- You might want to explore the beauty of something you have been inclined to think of as lacking beauty…write a poem or memoir passage or story about coming to see the beauty in something the way Gerald Stern comes to see beauty in the gulls.
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.
I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
-- Li-Young Lee