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I believe

What do you do when something you believe in, something you really really believe in, something you need the support of others to make happen—oh, okay, a book project—gets a lukewarm response from the person it needs to get a white-hot, jumping-up-and-down response from—oh, okay, your agent? Who, to be honest, has never been seen jumping up and down, at least not about any of the five books of mine that he has found homes for.

Just a little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog about leaning into the yes in which I talked about a moment of “no” that caused me to reevaluate how I spent my time and with whom.
That moment also made me appreciate anew the people who have believed in me and helped me do the things I believe in.

Reading that post now, I am struck by how externally oriented it was, how it was about the environment(s) in which I existed or exist, and the impact others have had on what I’ve been able to do. It’s true: Some people pave the path for others. Some people throw boulders in the path. Staying away from the boulder-throwers and cleaving to the path-clearers makes for a better, happier, saner life.

But sometimes, like now, it’s not about others clearing or obstructing paths. It’s about me. It’s about me leaning into myself, me repeating “yes” to myself even as my agent sends me cautionary emails that describe boulder-strewn paths. I wish I could get a resounding “yes” from him. I wish I could get him to jump up and down. But what is more important, I am realizing, is fueling that momentum in myself. I am the one who needs to believe. Not just in the project but in myself.

I believe.

And not out of arrogance. Rather out of respect for the power of story, of this story I am compelled to write, to connect, to make a difference.

August 15, 2018   4 Comments

The Work

I wrote a book a while ago. It was about ballet. But what it was really about was what one has to sacrifice to be extraordinary, what one has to give up to excel. Because excellence comes at a price. The dancers whose world I immersed myself in gave up normal lives. They gave up (for the most part) relationships with anyone outside the dance company. The women, many of them, would give up having children. Childbearing years are peak dancing years. Most of the dancers would give up a pain-free, joint-healthy future. They so intensely, single-mindedly loved what they did that they made these sacrifices. Or they were so young still that they didn’t yet realize what they were sacrificing.

I’ve been thinking about what one might sacrifice to be an extraordinary writer. Or even just a pretty good one. It is not just a sacrifice of time. It’s a given that writing well takes all the time you have and then demands more. It is also a sacrifice of spontaneity. I don’t mean the spontaneity of prose. That is the heart and soul of the enterprise. That’s the juice. I mean the spontaneity of life. Because good writing (not to mention extraordinary writing) takes focus and discipline. It means applying the seat of the pants to seat of the chair. Staying indoors on a summer afternoon. Saying no when you wish you could say yes. Working after work. Taking your computer with you on vacation. Thinking story when maybe you should be, well, living life.

I’m remembering that Marge Piercy poem that begins: A real writer is one who really writes. And that’s it. That’s what it takes: really writing. And some days it feels like a sacrifice. And some days it feels like a great and glorious privilege. And some days you long for the time when you sold batik on the Embarcadero.

 

 

 

 

August 8, 2018   4 Comments

Let’s do what’s hard

How do I stay (relatively) sane these days? Almost every night, I temper my temper, I calm my nerves, I lower my blood pressure, I (temporarily) blot out the previous 24 hours of egregious, sociopathic tweets that comprise US public policy these days by…watching The West Wing.

Yes, my days end with one episode of the political drama that ran for seven seasons, from 1999 through 2006, on NBC. And yes, I know no one except actors speaking crafted dialog are as clever and quick-witted as those West Wing characters. And yes I know Aaron Sorkin did not know how to write women. (Quelle surprise!) And yes I know the incessant walk-‘n’-talks can get old. And yes I know Jed Bartlet is an inveterate mansplainer.

But.

Just for a minute, join me in a world inhabited by a smart, compassionate, decent, literate president who sees himself as a public servant. Who surrounds himself with other smart people whom he treats with respect. Imagine a leader who listens carefully. Who agonizes over doing the right thing, the ethical thing, the good-for-the-people thing. Who knows he makes mistakes and takes responsibility for them.

Just for a minute imagine the staff this president has chosen to support—and challenge–him: talented, bold, hard-working, ethical people who respect each other, people who research every issue, who strive to understand the nuances, who strive to create policies that do good, who agonize over doing the right thing.

A tonic, my friends. A tonic.

Last night, I watched season 4, episode 2 which ended with a scene of three exhausted staffers walking back to the White House hours after midnight. They are talking about Jed Bartlet’s bid for a second term. This is Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director:

“If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas who’s connected to other people’s lives and cares about making them better, if we choose someone to inspire us, then we’ll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things we can’t imagine yet. Instead of telling people who’s the most qualified, instead of telling people who’s got the better ideas, let’s make it obvious. It’s gonna be hard.”

Josh Lyman, White House Deputy Chief of Staff answers, not missing a beat: “Then we’ll do what’s hard.”

Let’s do what’s hard, my friends.

August 1, 2018   No Comments

Concept Creep

Is everything completely terrible – or is the world actually getting better? I just read an interesting take on this in The Guardian.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same thing: How can this even be a question? Of course everything is completely terrible. Here in the US of A things have gone to shit in a big way. Every day brings new horrors, new rips in the social fabric, new threats to the values so many of us hold dear. Every day there is new evidence of the brutishness and stupidity of the man in the White House, and the cowardice and hypocrisy of the people who surround him. Every day there are new harms being done (or planned, or threatened, or tweeted). So what in the world is The Guardian, a thoughtful and intelligent newspaper, talking about?

Here’s how New York-based Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman poses the question: Are things getting worse or does it just feel that way? The article is not about the shit show that is contemporary America but rather about our broader perceptions about the world in which we live. Are we safer or less safe? Healthier or sicker? On one hand, the statistics show that, globally, poverty, hunger, violence and disease are actually decreasing. On the other hand, it sure the hell doesn’t seem like that.

Maybe, posits the article, we are suffering from what’s known as “concept creep.”  An Australian professor of psychology argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” Thus, the argument goes, we think more is wrong not necessarily because more is wrong but because we’ve expanded the definition of “wrong.”

Now it’s common to call a behavior like excessive shopping an “addiction,” or consider transient, situational unhappiness “depression.”  This is not to say that new problems or concerns are fake or are overreactions. That’s not the point of the article or the research on “concept creep.” It is to say that our universe of what to worry about seems to be constantly expanding because our definitions expand. Which does not mean that the world is getting scarier and more brutish. It just means, as one researcher put it: “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

Or, maybe it means we are getting increasingly sensitive in a good way to what we used to ignore or sweep under the rug? I’m not sure. Is this indecisivenessness of mine a problem? IDS (Indecisive Disorder Syndrome)?

July 25, 2018   No Comments

Ups and Downs

Life is not a carnival. Life is not a bowl of cherries. Life is a rollercoaster ride. We all know that.

One day you learn that one of your books has been optioned for film. The next day your agent shits all over your new proposal. One day one of the guys you work with at the prison wins first place in a national writing contest. The next day another of the guys you work with is denied parole. One day you watch four hummingbirds feast on the crocosmia. The next day the deer break into the garden and eat all the lettuce.

You can choose to be on the rollercoaster, which means that when lovely things happen, when good luck befalls you, when the sun shines, you are ecstatic. But when the tide turns, when the clouds roll in, when the shit hits the fan (choose your cliché), down you go. You ride the rollercoaster, alternating between various degrees of bliss and despair.

Or not.

You can adopt a detached attitude. You can watch the rollercoaster but not get on. You can appreciate a turn of events without yourself turning. You can note that life has its ups and downs without losing your lunch over it. No expectations. It is what it is, as they say.

They say. Not me.

I am a rider. I know that sometimes this makes me anxious, cranky and unhappy. But I also know that sometimes I can really soar.

Years ago I noticed a small lump on my shoulder. Since, as everyone who knows anything (and many who know nothing) knows: lump=cancer, I immediately imagined all of the kinds of cancer it could be, including ones I made up. I imagined going to the doctor, who ordered a full body scan (or maybe exploratory surgery). I imagined the doctor coming back after the procedure to tell me that there were tumors everywhere, that there was nothing to be done. During the week I waited for the actual doctor’s appointment. I ate little, slept little, worried incessantly, mentally sorted through my possessions to decide which kid would get what.

A week later, an actual doctor, not the one in my head, looked at the lump on my shoulder. For a split second. She declared it a lipoma (a completely benign rather common lump of fat that occurs between the skin and the underlying muscle) and asked if I’d like it removed.

An hour later, lump-less,I treated myself to breakfast at The Glenwood. I ordered a mushroom, onion and cheese omelet. It was the best omelet I have ever eaten in my life.

July 18, 2018   3 Comments

Thank you, Emma

Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). If you read about her, the first thing you’ll read is that she was 67 at the time, and then, because she’s a woman, you will read about how many children and grandchildren she had.

But here’s the most startling thing about Emma Gatewood’s 1955 trek: She wore Converse sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. That’s how she hiked. Damn.

At this very moment, a year from now, I will be hiking the Oregon section of the PCT, all 460 miles of it, from the Siskiyou Summit north across the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River. I hesitated with the verb tense in the previous sentence. I will be. I considered writing “I might be” or “I hope to be” or some other waffle-ly statement. But I want to declare this intention without wiggle room.

I made the declaration to myself yesterday as I trudged up our access road for my first practice hike, a five-miler over to and up Spencer Butte with a lightly loaded pack. I’ve hiked a lot, including some tough backcountry day hikes in the Kootenays of British Columbia and the red rock country of southern Utah. The operative word there is day hikes.

I have only once in my life hiked, camped and then hiked some more, and that was back before the invention of moveable type. On my various day hikes since that time, I’ve never carried more than one of those little Camelback hydration packs. Yesterday I hoisted on, cinched in, buckled up, etc. a serious through-hike backpack, one of several pieces of gram-shaving high-tech equipment I’ve been acquiring.

I plan to hike only the Oregon section – a third of Emma’s mileage – and I plan to outfit myself with ultra-light gear that will not include shower curtains.

Why the Oregon section? It’s my homage to the state I fell in love with at first sight, the state that’s been my home for pretty much all of my adult life, the state that continues to leave me breathless with its beauty (and generally the politics ain’t bad either). Also, hiking the entire PCT takes more than 5 months. The Oregon section… maybe 5 weeks. Note that one of my reasons is NOT “I couldn’t possibly hike the entire PCT.” Maybe I could. Maybe I couldn’t. After I complete the Oregon section, I’ll know better.

Why do this at all?

To see if I can.

Because of Emma Gatewood.

And because, as Gandhi famously said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” And I want to see the end of ageism.

July 11, 2018   No Comments

Declaring independence

You say you want a revolution?

Yes, said the colonists when on July 4, 1776, they declared their independence from England. In that same document, which we celebrate today and very few of us have read, the colonists listed 27 complaints against King George III, whom they viewed as a tyrannical leader. To wit: “He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our town and destroyed the lives of our people.”

Among the 27 complaints, this one that I thought was particularly relevant (and chilling):

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization for Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Apparently, the King heard reports from his colonial agents about the great influx and rapid growth of German immigrants. The Germans had strong principles of political freedom and their military was very respected. The King tried to prevent them from gaining any positions of power in the colonies by placing barriers to prevent immigrants from owning land.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Our current president declares us not the nation of immigrants we are –and so many of us are proud of — but rather a country of walls and fences (literal and otherwise), of deportations and separations, of quotas and bans. Of fear.

As King George cited anonymous reports from his agents, so our president cited “public reports” that “routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”

As King George passed laws targeted against German immigrants, creating barriers to their success in the colonies, so our president finally, with the aid of the Supreme Court muscled through a proclamation (shot down twice by lower courts) that restricts entry into the US from (now) 7 countries. Our president continuously calls for a wall to be constructed across our southern border (a border created when we fought a war with Mexico and took their land). Across that border come bad people, criminals and rapists, he says. Also, our new America under this president doesn’t want people from shithole (his words) countries like Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations.

We cannot let the daily assaults to civility, factuality, common sense, compassion and sanity dull  us to the monstrous activities and hostile actions of this administration and particularly our “king.”

We need a Declaration of Independence. Now. Help write it by contributing in the comments section ONE (yes, only one) grievance. The colonists had a list of 27. How long will our list be?

N.B: King George was determined to “keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse.”

 

 

 

 

July 4, 2018   2 Comments

Stand your ground

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

No, I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

I am discovering, in this stony-hearted, toxic, blatantly cruel and aggressively harmful country we find ourselves living in these days, that “standing my ground” means more than I thought. I thought the only way to stand your ground was to take action: Make those calls and write those letters and send in those donations. Keep telling those untold stories. Keep volunteering at Food for Lane County and the Oregon State Penitentiary. Stand up for what you believe and cherish by taking overt action.

But there’s an emotional/ psychological—dare I say it? spiritual—component to this standing your ground process that I wasn’t paying attention to, that I was, in fact, dismissing. I thought that anything other than activism harkened back to Me Decade horseshit. You know “visualize world peace” rather than, say, work in the trenches for world peace.

But, after a few days in the presence of a group of compassionate, tender, open-hearted and seriously (and playfully) spiritual people, I am reminded of how important it is to gather energy and act with grace, to nourish your own soul, especially in a time of darkness, to create positive forces within that can help you withstand the negative forces without, to surround yourself with those who care lest you forget that the world is actually full of those who care.

And so standing your ground for me now means more than just upholding and working for the egalitarian, democratic, communitarian beliefs I hold dear. It means keeping myself buoyant, finding a place of peace and energy and, well, groundedness within so that I do not lose hope in our essential goodness. So that I am able to act from a place of hope not rage.

June 27, 2018   7 Comments

For granted

You know when you’re sick and then you get better, or when you’re in pain and then pain goes away, how you have this moment of pure exaltation, this blast of unfettered happiness, this glorious sense of goodness, wellness, rightness… and you tell yourself: I’ll never take my health for granted again? And then, a day later (an hour later) there you are, taking it for granted again.

This morning, early morning, I was sitting outside on the deck reading a manuscript, a first novel by an old friend, and the birds started singing. I mean singing. Not tweet-tweeting. I’m talking lilting melodies. And there was this soft breeze with just a hint of coolness. And I looked up from the pages on my lap at the intense green that is mid-June in Oregon. And the peace of it, the beauty of it, the privilege of it washed over me. It staggered me. And I thought: I will never take this for granted again.

But I will.

June 20, 2018   5 Comments

Hot water

The same hot water that softens the potato hardens the egg.

I read that on someone’s Facebook feed a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I hate to admit that. It’s like admitting you were inspired by a bumpersticker (which I actually was, once), but there you have it.

I guess it’s just a cleverer way of saying that it isn’t the circumstance that matters but rather the reaction.

I think about the men in my prison writing group. I’ve been running the group for more than three years now. The men are all Lifers, all convicted murders. The “hot water” of their pre-incarceration lives included but was not limited to: physically abusive parents, sexually abusive relatives, domestic violence, poverty, racism, homophobia, households “held together” by drugs and criminal activity, lack of education.

This is not to relieve them of moral agency. Their environment didn’t make them do what they did. They chose to do what they did. And, depending how you want to parse the “hot water” maxim, they either hardened (like the egg)—that is, they lost the capacity for empathy—or softened (like the potato)—whatever moral code or inborn core of decency they might have had dissipated.

For the past two or three decades—yes, they have all been behind bars twenty, thirty, thirty-five years—they have been immersed in the hot water of daily life in a maximum security prison. Some men drown. Some men float, numbed by drugs. Some men pretend the water is not scalding them. They do not acknowledge the pain.

Not these guys, not the men who have learned to use writing to capture and process experience. That hot water? It has both hardened and softened them. Their souls have softened, and their resolve has hardened. Their minds have sharpened, and their hearts have opened. They have changed.

Can they be forgiven? Should they be released? Big questions.

June 13, 2018   4 Comments