The Lyric Book is PUBLISHED!, and why it’s complicated …

The picture is worth a thousand words!

The picture is worth a thousand words!

The Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg has been in its current location since 1930. Its story is now available in a book that I helped write, The Lyric Theatre: the Heart of Blacksburg.

It’s beautiful to look at and lovely to hold because the designer, Christina O’Connor, is crazy good at what she does. It’s interesting because Su Clauson-Wicker and Cheryl Wood Ruggiero are terrific interviewers and researchers and writers and copy-editors. And folks have said it reads well because I did much of the writing. This is thrilling!

That said, I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday who asked me: are you comfortable receiving praise for this book? My answer: it’s complicated.

I love it when people love something I’ve written. But I often feel like the story has come to me; it’s not “mine” — it’s ours. I wrote it down. The story is mine only insofar as I am responsible for listening closely to what I hear and discerning the story. I am responsible for paying attention, for discipline and diligence, for re-writing for clarity and power, and for finding a home for stories. But once I’m done writing, it’s not mine. It’s ours. I happen to be the writer.

It also happens that this book was a pleasure to serve as a writer. Enjoy it! The story it tells belongs to all of us.

And may you have the chance to listen for, and share, your stories as well.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so at the YMCA Craft Fair November 13-15 (I’ll be there some of the time if you want a personalized copy!). It’s also available in downtown Blacksburg at the Alexander Black House, the Artful Lawyer Gallery, the Lyric Theatre, the Montgomery Museum, and Uncommonly Gifted.

Words fail …

During one of my annual treks to Taos, I visited a friend who taught fifth grade in the school for the Cochiti Pueblo outside Albuquerque, NM. My visit coincided with feast day, and although she’s Anglo like me, she was invited to many of her students’ and former students’ homes, as well as to the traditional, day-long dances. I got to tag along.

On the approach the Pueblo, and in the Pueblo itself, there were signs delineating those parts of the community that are private, including the church and kivas. These signs state very clearly “no pictures.”

There are nuanced layers around photography of indigenous peoples; photographs can and have been used to create distance between, and domination over, picture-taker and pictured. And, my friend pointed out, participation in a ceremony is an experience to be had; it can’t be captured for later. It has to be lived.

But just watch, she added. Someone will try to take a picture and the elders will confiscate their camera. Sure enough, twenty minutes after the drums began and the dancers circled into the square, a tourist with a telephoto lens had made his way onto the church balcony (yes, the church that had “no public access” signs at each door). He raised his big ole camera and began clicking away. And it felt wrong. It was more than disrespect. It was robbery.

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

Fast forward to this past week, when I spent five days at the Brave New Story workshop with Jeffrey Davis, Laraine Herring and Cathy Shap, all members of the Tracking Wonder team. Instead of taking “pictures” (aka notes) about their facilitation techniques and observing my reactions through my intellectual lens,  I accepted their invitation to step fully into my body and my story. I let them guide the workshop sessions and I participated wholly: I listened to my colleagues in the workshops rather than stereotyping them; I howled and danced and cried; I wrote and read brand-new words about my story’s protagonist. I emerged from the week with clarity, a renewed dedication to my story, and a new-to-me reluctance to talk about the experience. My friends and family all want to know, What happened? What have you learned? What was it like?

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

I have some pictures of the place we stayed, and of my new-found friends, but those doesn’t begin to capture my transformative experience.

For once, I haven’t figured out the words to tell the story of what happened. I lived it. It was magical. It was deeply personal even though I shared it with 17 other women and the Tracking Wonder team.

And I’m honoring my heart’s instinct to hold the experience close for now. To allow it to live inside me instead of tossing it hither and yon in anecdotes and intellectually satisfying summaries.

In this part of my story, the point isn’t the words. The point is the being and doing, with passion and integrity.

May it be so for you as well.

Fleek, fleck, whatever; I got it wrong.

The young-to-me man ringing up my lunch order said, “That tomato soup is on point. Or as the young would say, on fleek.” (Spelled like it sounds.)

“On what?” I asked, and added, “You look like the younger generation to me.”

“No,” he said, “I was born in ’90 so I’m not the younger generation. And yeah, they say on fleek. It’s the same as saying on point.” (Which I think is really en pointe, the french term for ballet dancers when they are on their tippy-toes.)

“But why? What’s the logic of that? Where’s it from?”

He shrugged. “Kids today.”

Indeed. After supper I asked the 14 y.o., “What does on FLECK mean?”

“Oh my god mom, do you mean on fleek?”

“Yeah, that’s it. On fleek. What the heck is that?”

He doubled over, in shame or wordless laughter, I couldn’t tell. “Just don’t ever say that again, mom.” And then he hollered up the stairs to his older brother, “Guess what mom just got wrong!”

I am so of the older generation now. I like being of the older generation — I don’t worry about my looks or whether someone else likes me, etcetera. There’s a lot of freedom in middle age. And true to the stereotype of middle-aged mom, I despair about the younger generation some of the time. I’m baffled by on fleek. My hubby and I lament the screens that engage our children although in my reflective moments I think that perhaps slaughtering forests of trees for paper on which to print essays and books isn’t all that great … and how ironic that plenty of those essays and books are about how the next generation doesn’t get it because they’re on their devices all the time … and those kids in my community who went to school in t-shirts bearing the confederate flag don’t seem to have ever read a history book! How is it that they don’t grasp the complexity and nuance of how that symbol affects their fellow community members? Kids today.

Kids today! Some thing never change. And as a writer I have been struggling with whether and how to enter the increasingly-heated political frays occurring all over the place, not least in my own confederate-flag-divided community.

Adam Zagajewski 2014 in Stockholm

photo of Adam Zagajewski 2014 in Stockholm by Frankie Fouganthin — from WikiCommons

I found guidance in Susan Sontag‘s essay, “The Wisdom Project,” which centers on an extended exploration of the book Another Beauty by Adam Zagaejewski, a Polish writer:

Life, when not a school for heartlessness, is an education in sympathy. The sum of stories reminds us that in a life of a certain length and spiritual seriousness, change — sometimes not for the worse — is just as real as death.

All writing is a form of remembering. …

That memories are recovered — that is, that the suppressed truths do reemerge — is the basis of whatever hope one can have for justice and a modicum of sanity in the ongoing life of communities. …

That every generation fears, misunderstands, and condescends to its successor — this, too, is a function of the equivalence of history and memory (history being what it is agreed on, collectively, to remember). Each generation has distinctive memories, and the elapsing of time, which brings with it a steady accumulation of loss, confers on those memories a normativeness which cannot possibly be honored by the young, who are busy compiling their memories, their benchmarks. … The rule seems to be: each generation looks upon its successor generation as barbarians.

Sontag goes on to point out that

…history should never be thought of with a capital H. The governing sense of Zagajewski’s memory-work is his awareness of having lived through several historical periods, in the course of which things eventually got better. Modestly, imperfectly–not utopianly–better. … Lesson: evil is not immutable. The reality is, everyone outlives an old self, often more than one, in the course of a reasonably long life.

I don’t agree with those who claim the confederate flag is “just” a symbol of their heritage: such a statement places the mask of simplicity over our uniquely complex American heritage of–and present-day schizophrenia about–slavery.  I don’t think on fleek makes a damn bit of sense. And give me a book made from dead trees instead of an e-reader, please.

But I do agree with Sontag and Zagajewski’s words about hope — I have outlived several of my old selves. I am hopeful that our current political and personal experiences will prove to be an education in sympathy. And that writers, myself included, will contribute to our collective memory, our collective story. To our modest, imperfect betterment.

May it be so.

The MFA: I’m running like our cat

We have a sweet and wonderful cat, a stray who lived near my old writing studio. I gathered her up one chilly November day several years ago  — she was sweet and affectionate even when she was skinny and shivering — and brought her home to join the chaos. She has a loud purr and will nip your calves when her dish has been too empty for too long. And she loves to sit in and on suitcases. Packing for a trip? Plan an extra ten minutes to vacuum the fur off the bag. Returning from a trip? If you don’t close the suitcase after emptying it, she will sleep in it all day long.

And this cat loves to snuggle up next to my husband when we do our daily meditation sit. Ok, it’s not every day, but we try. The 17 y.o. sits in the big yellow chair, the 14 y.o. & I settle on the couch and hubby sits on a zabuton cushion and the cat, no matter where she is in the house, curls up next to him. She purrs and purrs and purrs and purrs.

Meditating kitty.

Meditating kitty. And hubby.

But last night there was an open suitcase in the foyer. She had leapt into it, settled and purred and fallen asleep. Well, we said, no cat on the zabuton tonight. We all sat down and we set the timer and … there was a gentle kerthump as the cat jumped from the suitcase and then ran — sprinted — to sit with my husband. Seriously.

Please indulge me as I now sally forth into extended-metaphor-land.  In this metaphor, I am the cat, my life is the suitcase and the snuggling-while-meditating is my writing. I like my life. It has comfy places to sit and I like to sit and write. And when the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program offered me a place in their program I of course happily accepted.

And here’s what surprised me: I had no idea I would want to sprint to an MFA program. I love writing and my application obviously was an indicator that I’d want to enter the program. But when I began listening to some of Warren Wilson’s downloadable craft lectures, I shifted from “this will be good,” to “this is what I have wanted to do and didn’t even know it holy cow I can’t wait!” An entire hour of lecture about the semicolon! An hour and a half on internal versus external turning points in fiction and poetry! When I described the bliss I experienced while listening to these lectures, the 14 y.o. said, “You’re kidding, right?” and I squealed, “No! No! I am not kidding. I get to study this stuff for TWO WHOLE YEARS!” He was aghast. I was giddy.

It’s a bit weird that our cat runs to sit with us during meditation. Loving to think about and talk about semicolons is a bit weird. (OK, maybe a lot weird.) But I am looking forward, with an almost animalistic delight, to immersion in this new-to-me writing community. Long live the weird!

May you find and run to your (little bit weird) delight today, too.

Meditating on driftwood: intolerance and the #BLM-Sanders kerfuffle.

I signed up for a workshop with Jeffrey Davis at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference this past July. He uses mindfulness practices to smooth transitions between our multiple selves (writer/mother/wife/friend/asylum resident).

It’s the first writing workshop I’ve attended that blew the lid off my creativity (others have deepened and expanded my craft but not touched the how of my writing). Characters came faster, deeper and easier. My capacity to notice details expanded tenfold. (“It’s like a drug cabinet that is all in your brain.”) My understanding of my own process has resulted in the longest consistent stretch of daily writing practice I’ve ever experienced (as in, six out of seven days in the weeks since the conference, all while visiting friends, traveling, picking kids up from camp, going on family vacation, and getting kids ready for school).

Taos Mountain in the afternoon ...

Taos Mountain in the afternoon …

A colleague also participated in the Taos conference. Her afternoon workshop was in the same room as my morning one. And her workshop leader disparaged the driftwood that our morning workshop left in the center of the table. “This is disgusting, what is this, take it away, I didn’t bring that,” are all words my colleague reported her afternoon leader saying. Many of the other workshop participants, my colleague reported, “followed the leader” and joined in the disparagement, suggesting graffiti on the driftwood, etcetera.

Several years ago I would have been offended and upset. This year, I felt only sadness that fellow writers — aspiring and established, teacher and students  — engaged in this dismissive diminishment.

We cannot know what will work for another writer. For another human being.

And so when I heard that some #Black Lives Matter people took the microphone away from Bernie Sanders, I thought, well, maybe that’s not so bad.

Maybe it’s time to say: we’re going to do it differently. We’re not going to cede the microphone. We’re going to meditate on driftwood.

Maybe it is time for us white folk to sit down and shut up and listen. 

Maybe it is time to consider that meditating on driftwood could yield powerful stories.

Maybe powerful stories will lead to powerful actions.

Maybe powerful actions will expand our souls.

Maybe expanded souls would have room to hold the world’s simultaneous realities: our own experiences are true and the (different) experiences of others are equally true.

Maybe if we could hold the world’s simultaneous realities, we would also begin to transform our small scared parts, the parts so terrified of other that we would rather dismiss other than struggle to remain open.

May it be so.

Happy Birthday, us.

I pride myself on my capacity for informed choice about all manner of things: food, writing, garden design, paint colors, politics, religion. This is also known as Snobbery. Since my early twenties, when part of a summer internship was harvesting fish (read: clubbing them to death in a shallow pond), I have  bought into the worldview that All Meat is All Bad, All the Time. So it’s a fine how-do-you-do that for this Father’s Day slash Fourth of July, my family has celebrated by purchasing a grill. To grill meat on.

Our family’s vegetarianism was shaped by a variety of factors: general health, animal welfare, economics (personal and global). Our change of heart was shaped by changes in the meat available (local), the quality of it (high), and economics (personal) that allowed us the privilege of buying that local meat from local farmers. Plus, y’know, it tastes good.

But whose god? Whose lord?

God is on everyone’s side, right?

So perhaps you can imagine why I shudder every time I see a sentiment similar to this. I’ve experienced the expansion and humility inherent in reversing my  righteousness about dietary choices: if that lesson can be found in pork loin, I think it’s very likely that claiming one’s nation is blessed by god/lord is equally un-humble. Yet from the Amish to the Zen Buddhists: we claim the way. We are living the right way. The best way. Some of us do with humility; some of us with rigidity.

It’s similar to poets proclaiming the purity of their pantoums, the novelists touting the truth of their tomes, etcetera.

I have discovered that sometimes a poem is what I need to percolate through my morning*; other days I want to drizzle a short story atop my pancakes. And on summer afternoons, what joy to forget the heat and humidity in a deep cool pool of a novel. The range of expression and connection available to us through words is the ultimate just-right gift. We can connect and ponder and be awed through whatever form works for us.

Despite experiencing the power of the breadth of literary choice – or choice in anything: Ice cream flavors! Car colors! Fireworks! — we deem our choice of spiritual practice all-or-nothing. We are either tripping lightly down the lovely shaded path to salvation or tramping through the briars on the overgrown trail to damnation.

I know a spiritual practice is different from a readerly practice. Although both are, ideally, daily events, spiritual reflection and connection is often most effectively sustained and deepened within the frame or structure of a specific set of beliefs; it’s hard to go deep when surveying the surface. Just as the poet might splutter and flail about in the novelist’s form, so might the Buddhist flounder in a Catholic mass.

Except: some of the more effective prose writers have been poets; some of the more effective spiritual and secular (read: political) leaders lift up and articulate religions’ fundamental similarities. We are most powerful when we expand ourselves to integrate the blessings of other forms of writing, of praying, of being in the world.

America came into being in large part so that folks could practice a non-governmentally approved religion – so we could practice different ways than The Way that had been decreed. It was a good idea then, it’s a good idea now. And it’s always fun to have a big ole party. With ground-beef burgers and veggie burgers.

Happy birthday, us.

* Because no birthday is complete without a poem, I offer this, which was part of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac yesterday and offers a different perspective about narrow choice than the one I promote above. Like most of life, both-and are true.

Imagine This

by Freya Manfred

When you’re young, and in good health,

you can imagine living in New York City,

or Nepal, or in a tree beyond the moon,

and who knows who you’ll marry: a millionaire,

a monkey, a sea captain, a clown.

But the best imaginers are the old and wounded,

who swim through ever narrowing choices,

dedicating their hearts to peace, a stray cat,

a bowl of homemade vegetable soup,

or red Mountain Ash berries in the snow.

Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,

a jig-jagged jaunt with a cane along the shore,

leaning on a walker to get from grocery to car,

smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,

teaching every child you meet the true story

of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.

Tooting my own horn …

I’m delighted to share the news that my short story, “Her Mother’s Ghost” will be included in the Lascaux Review Prize Anthology; here’s the Official Announcement.

Summer's beauty begins.

Summer’s beauty begins.

I’ll also read my poem, “My Mother’s Garden Journal” at the Moss Center’s Unleashed exhibit on Friday, June fifth, 5:30-7 PM — and there’s an open mike after the reading so come on and share your own works! This exhibit solicited short prose and poetry around the theme of “garden” and the texts have been graphically re-imagined by the curators. I’m curious to see what they’ve “done” to my words.

The summer is off to a writerly start.