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.

Rome is burning.

Warning: a bit of a rant follows.

Do you have a Big Kroger Store in your neighborhood yet? These massive 100K+ square foot stores boast about the hundreds of thousands of items they contain. They post their mission statements, which invariably refer to “providing a pleasant shopping experience.” They forget they are a grocery store. People come for food. If customers need an alphabetized index to find eggs and milk, the store is too big.  But wait! On aforementioned index in the last Big Kroger’s I visited (in Lexington, KY), milk and eggs aren’t listed. There’s “dairy” and that area of the store has both milk and eggs. Yet last I checked an egg is essentially an unfertilized embryo and not, uh, dairy. These stores are like a Work of Art that requires an interpretative talk. Does it touch my heart? Yes? Then it’s Art. No? Then it’s an academic pursuit. Can I find what I need for supper in 5 minutes or less? Yes? Then it’s a grocery store. No? Then it’s another reason to re-up my membership at the human-scale co-op. I don’t want to study an index when I go grocery shopping. I want to load my cart with the necessities* and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Not on this board: Eggs. Milk. Flour.

Not listed on this grocery-store index: Eggs. Milk.

If the store is so large as to require a PhD in index-reading, the employees need to be paid Top Dollar so they can provide topnotch directions to the confused shoppers. Do not confuse topnotch direction-giving employees with topnotch costumed employees: putting an employee in a rabbit outfit and having them drive around the store in a golf cart decorated as an Easter basket, the day before Easter, saying hullo to the confused shoppers, is not topnotch customer service.  It’s an attempt to distract shoppers from their mounting frustration at having to walk a mile for bread and milk (located at opposite ends of the store). I put this type of distraction alongside the gorgeously designed book covers that hide their texts’ sloppy writing, worse editing, and sagging plots.

Really?

Really?

However, thousands of badly-written, badly-edited gorgeous-cover books are published every year, and huge Kroger’s are popping up in cities across the mid-south region, so somebody’s buying. (“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”) Depending on my mood on a given day, I experience our apparent willingness to be distracted by rabbit-dressed employees and glossy covers as symbolic, as ironic, as disheartening, as hilarious. On my worst days, I believe we are burning like Rome burned, and fiddling around on our screens like Nero fiddled on his violin.

Silver lining: there is a novel or twenty to be had by observing the fuel of our flames.

And so my wish for you, dear writer friend, is that the sublimely ridiculous may inspire you today.

* condoms used to be a necessity for me, but (thankfully) Engineer Hubby and I have eliminated the possibility of more kids. That said, part of the reason, IMO, that we are burning is that there are, simply, too many of us. We suffer from our species’ reproductive success. And *that* said, wouldn’t it make sense for us to support, nay, encourage!, those among us who don’t want kids?

Making it difficult to not contribute to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

Making it difficult to avoid contributing to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

But at this Kroger’s the condoms are LOCKED UP like they’re ammunition or prescription drugs. Again, really? If I were running the store, I would not only leave these unlocked, I’d place them beside the door. Perhaps with a little sign: “Donations accepted but not required.” Really. Because by the time shoppers get home from hiking through this store, they’re gonna need a foot rub from their partners, and that can lead to, y’know, mashing the potatoes … ah! If only tubers were included on the index.

Form!

Today my thoughts about writing are inspired by a stranger, a woman I see during weightlifting classes, usually Sunday afternoon, sometimes Wednesday mornings. She’s about my age — I’ve seen her in these classes for all the 15+ years I’ve been going — and we’re both starting look our half-centuries-old, though she far less than I. In fact, if you don’t look too closely at her face or her softening tummy, you’d take her for ten years younger that our late forties.

Weensy weights

Weensy weights

The nearer I get to fifty the more I find correct form to be critical to my day-after-the-gym feeling, aka good ache or ohgodIthinkI’mbroken. Form like not rounding my back during a dead-lift, not pulling from the shoulder for a bicep curl, not pushing my knees beyond my ankles for the squats. In the choreographed classes I favor, the teachers run us through the moves at a variety of tempos, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes a combination. For me, the coveted burn inevitably happens on the slow moves. Pushing weight up and down for eight slow counts requires more of my muscles than a one-two, up-down motion. I load my bar with only 12-15 pounds for squats, less for everything else. This is a puny amount of weight.

My fellow weightlifter, however, piles on triple those pounds.  She follows neither the instructors’ directions about form, nor their tempo. Her arms flare out during overhead triceps kickbacks, her back is the St. Louis arch when she dead-lifts, and during squats her knees overshoot her ankles by a good six inches. Until this past week, I hadn’t seen her follow the tempo; regardless of what the teacher says, she does the move in two counts, up-down, and then stands waiting for any remaining beats.

But Sunday’s instructor, himself a middle-aged fella, looked directly at her while addressing the class: “Don’t go faster than me. If you finish the move before me, you’re not doing the work.” She began to follow the suggested tempo.

Lo and behold: the first eight-count up and down squat, she barely made it back to standing. The eight-count squat immediately following she did at half her range. Then she skipped every other repetition. This continued for the remainder of the class. She wasn’t strong enough to lift her weight slowly, without resting in between.

But she looks great! So does it matter, really?

Enh, maybe yes, maybe no. If she’s not hurting herself, exercising with “incorrect” form is probably better than not exercising at all. Besides, everyone’s body is different, and perhaps form is all relative.

revision

Revision notes

But I found myself thinking it’s a lot like writing. Sometimes when I’m inspired I throw words down and they look brilliant! They are fabulous! It is only when I re-read them the next day, with pacing and rhythm in mind, that I notice those slap-dashed words do not carry the weight of my ideas through to the end. And just as I love the burn of the slow moves in the weightlifting class, I love revising. I love looking for exactly the right word. I love playing with phrases and clauses.

I prefer to be able lift all my weight for all the repetitions, at whatever tempo is suggested. I prefer to have an idea about when to use a compound sentence, and when to use a simple sentence, and when to use a fragment. I’d also prefer to have the genius of Shakespeare and a muffin-top-free waistband.

Alas. Neither the muse nor the fat fairy has gifted me thus.

The burn ...

The burn …

No matter. I still enjoy the burn, and whether my words live on after my plump self has gone, I continue to find satisfaction in aiming to get the form right.

May it be so for you as well.

 

On the importance of faking it

Two of my writing pals (w.p.s) are therapists, and we recently explored the reasons we’re not-writing some of our stories. Primarily because we don’t want to upset people who are still alive. We played with ideas for pseudonyms, or name withheld, as is done for some of the “Readers Write” pieces in The SunThen w.p. 1 shared that a former client had published an article wherein my w.p.’s therapeutic advice was quoted — anonymously. At least it was accurate, she said. Sometimes, she continued, clients credit me with advice I know I wouldn’t have given.

Perhaps all of us have had that experience: someone tells a story wherein we play a role, and their version of the story puts words in our mouths or jitterbugging on our dance moves, words and jitterbugging we either have no recollection of, or that we feel very confident we would neither have spoken nor danced.

I’ve experienced this a couple of times: once with a fellow mother who says I told her daughter (5 y.o., dressed up as a princess and wasn’t she *beautiful!*) it’s inner beauty that counts (sounds like me, have no memory of saying it); another time with a colleague who tells me that at the end of a group meeting where we were expressing gratitudes, I stated that I was grateful for birth control (OK, well, maybe I would have said that, but not at that particular meeting!).

So I’ve had enough opportunities to learn that the truism about not knowing how we’re affecting other people is, in fact, true. But the week before Christmas, I forgot this. My sons were sleeping late that week, and playing video games and raiding the fridge and generally having a Fine Time Of It (well, the 17 y.o. had basketball practice most mornings, but still!), and on this particular morning, I was sweating over the details of boxing up cookies for the relatives. And I wasn’t being very calm or polite or zen-y, I was muttering under my breath and then I was squawking in what I know is an unpleasant-to-hear tone. Perhaps my decibels increased.

Hank guarding some guy

The 17 y.o. (white jersey) guarding some guy.

At which point the 17 y.o. came in from basketball practice, assessed the situation and took a shower before tackling cello practice. After cello, he and his sweetie headed out for their own Xmas fun, driving to see some spectacular lights in Bedford County. Then they went out for a nice dinner and he texted they’d be home by 11. And he was. But his girlfriend, god bless her, had driven him home because when he went to get in his car, he sort of stumbled and he was dizzy and he felt sick.

Turns out he’d taken a shoulder/knee combo to the head in basketball practice. That he didn’t remember it, only remembered sitting on the floor with people around him. That he took himself out of practice for the rest of the practice. That his coach had called him mid-afternoon to see how he was doing. He’s already had two concussions, so he had a pretty good idea that this was, likely, another one. A third one. The one that his doctor and his parents have said will mean he has to stop playing basketball.

But when I’d grumpily, perfunctorily asked, how was practice, he’d said fine. Because he’d already heard me grumping in the kitchen and who wants to deal with a grumpy mother who’s said if you get another concussion you can’t play contact sports anymore? No one wants to deal with a grumpy mama, grumpy anyone. I don’t. But I was so caught up in my own angst about the packages I foreclosed even the remote possibility that he might have mentioned something about his concussion* when he returned from practice. I have now Officially Learned My Lesson. The temporary relief that grumping provides me is not worth its cost: it closes off communication, interaction, engagement, connection. So now, even when I am grumpy I am trying to behave, if not cheerfully, at least neutrally. (Note: I do not always succeed.) And here’s the connection to writing: even when I don’t feel like writing, I am trying to behave as if I’m a writer, because if I don’t, I close off all those same opportunities: communication, interaction, engagement, connection).

15 minutes is all it takesSo I set my timer for fifteen minutes and I uncap my pen, lay out my paper (sometimes I have to light a candle and make tea because some days, when I feel really grumpy, it is HARD to begin writing) and then I hit “start” on the timer and I write. Sometimes I write all the reasons I am not a writer. Sometimes I doodle. Sometimes I draft dialogue or make a list of questions for my piece. Sometimes I bitch and moan about groceries, laundry yadda yadda yadda. And more often than not, I continue after the timer’s ding, finishing the dialogue or thinking about the answers to the questions or looking up a word or, on the really good days, writing all the way through to the end of a piece. Or revising a paragraph or two of a piece in progress. There is much to be said for fake it ’til you make it.

May it be so.

* he recovered quickly and we are consulting neurologists about the risks of continuing to play basketball. He is playing now — scoring in the double digits sometimes — and he loves it. We are wrestling with: getting out of bed and walking out the door has inherent risks and if you love an activity deeply, do you stop doing it because of the risk? Do you take up cross-country or golf only to get a concussion when you trip on the trail or an errant ball bounces into you? Or to ruin your knees, hips, shoulders? No easy answers here and curses upon our limited human experience of time and life as a single linear event without the possibility of testing different paths.

The power of words …

… and cartoons. I mark the passage of our 12 (twelve, a dozen) French writers, cartoonists, satirists, and fellow humans.

 

Distraction in action

So it’s Happy New Year! And time for a Fresh Start! And Evaluation of the Year Gone By! And Setting of Resolutions! And playing with distractions, like, do I need a coffee grinder that will grind beans fine enough for espresso! Because I cannot figure out the ending of my short story! And I am in despair!

I’ve been worrying that my brain is falling, albeit gradually and gracefully, off the rails, because the ending of this particular story is slippery; I cannot storyboard it, outline it, image-board it. It glimmers in the corner of my eye and then swims away into dark waters, flicking its tail saucily. When this happens, I imagine my brain plummeting, down, down, down, from one of those dramatic high trestle bridges over a roiling river, icy and filled with mysterious silver-green fish.

Even as part of me feels terror at this fall, another part of me is wondering where such bridges exist, and do the rivers they span have silver-green fish and what would that color be called, anyway, and what would those fish be named and who named them?

And then the timer dings and again I have not gotten anywhere on the story ending. I have generated a list of questions that goes with my other lists of questions and ideas and concepts and free-writes and interesting imagery, stacks of lists tall enough to serve as trestle-bridge supports. Wobbly and unorganized and occasionally coffee-stained supports, but enough to get a steam-engine of a story across the gorge if I could focus on my writing.

Lack of writing focus has been balanced out by my focus on reading in December, however. I spent several hours at the end of 2014 immersed in Gordon Peerman’s book, Blessed Relief: What Christians can learn from Buddhists about Suffering. I don’t identify with either faith, but I relate to suffering.

I’m suffering, I say, as the story-ending vanishes again. I’m suffering, I say, as the timer dings and I have failed, AGAIN, to focus on my writing. I’m not really suffering, I say, as I read the newspaper. I’m suffering with privilege, I say, but it’s not real suffering. I should do some real suffering.

Peerman’s book provided me with a useful perspective on this hilarious-viewed-from-a-distance mindset, particularly with the Five Remembrances practice Thich Nhat Hanh shared in The Blooming of a Lotus. Peerman writes

The intention of this practice is to help you wake up to the significance of this moment, the impermanence of possessions and plans, and the significance of the actions you choose.

The five remembrances themselves are about aging, illness, death, loss, and the results of our actions; for me, they are a mindful articulation about “accepting that which we cannot change,” an adage so overused that it feels watered-down.

Watered-down, downstream, fluid, shape-shifting water, water that roils and dances, water that retains the power to erode granite, to reshape the earth’s contours, to shelter fish, to catch anything that falls from the heavens. Water that runs to the sea. Water that will bear my weight, float me forward.

If I allow myself to float on that water, then my precarious trestle of ideas, my angst-filled train engine of a brain, my inability to catch the glimmering fishtail of my story’s end — all these bits, all I say to myself about how these bits are making me suffer  — they settle, they quiet, they slow. The train puffs to a halt on the bridge and I peer out the window at the river below and crack the window and breathe that crisp river air and the fish jump and sparkle and perhaps my traveling companion knows their name, and then I pick up my pen and return to my notebook, and I am immersed in the writing and when the train moves again its movement is gentle enough to be unnoticeable. Gentle enough, but powerful enough, too. It is enough, what I have. Whether or not I find The Ending to This Story: it is enough. There will be another bridge of ideas over another river, or there won’t. But right here, right now: this is enough. I have enough.

May it be so for your stories, too.

Ice, Water, Steam