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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

Click and send

Click and send.

That’s it.

The end to three years, actually more like four years, of intense, focused, rollercoaster work: A book.

Back in the old days, when I first started writing books, you printed out the entire manuscript and sent it in the mail to your editor. I loved watching the pages shoot out from the printer. I’d leave the room and come back, and the printer would still be going, working on my work. I loved straightening that stack of paper, aligning the edges, eyeing the height, feeling the heft. I rubberbanded it, placed it in the passenger’s seat and drove it down to the UPS store where the woman behind the counter knew me. “Another book?” she asked. And I would smile and nod.

And off it went. In a truck, in a plane, in another truck. A satisfying journey.

Still, the end was not and has never been a happy moment for me, despite the “Congratulations!” and “It must be so great to have it done!” and “You must be so excited” comments from others.

I’m not glad to finish. I am not excited about finishing. When I’m excited is when I’m writing, when I’m immersed a subject, hip-deep in the world of the book, all cylinders firing. I am thrilled to be so thoroughly absorbed. My life has a shape. My days have an order. There is focus to my reading, my thinking, my conversation, even my dreaming. I love the way writing demands tunnel vision, the way it obliterates the multi-tasker in me. The book is like a planet, and I am its moon. I love the tug of that gravitational pull. I never want to be released.

But then I am. At least, back in the old days, the end had a ritual to it, a moment captured and remembered in the weight of the manuscript in my hand. For a long time now, at least four books, I think, the end has been signaled only by click and send.

And so I click and send. And look for a new planet to circle.

June 6, 2018   4 Comments

The cost of being beaten

I know someone who’s been battered. Attacked, punched and kicked.

When those of us to whom something like this has never happened think about it, if we think about it, we think about the psychological cost. What it means to have an intimate partner hurt you. How it changes the way you look at relationships. How it curdles love. How it erodes self-esteem. How it destroys trust. Women who are battered often stay with their batterers. The batterers apologize and swear it will never happen again. Or they tell the women that they deserved the beating. Or they threaten to do something worse if the women try to leave. Imagine living with someone you are terrified of.

Now suppose, on top of all that, as you are struggling to make sense of your circumstances and think about your life and fight the fear you feel and try to gather the strength to leave, you get five separate bills in the mail, from urgent care, where you went that first night, and the hospital emergency room, where you went the next day when you couldn’t breathe, and the ER doctor who saw you and the technicians who X-rayed and MRI-ed you, and the lab that did the blood work. And the bills total $11,699.

You did not spend a night in the hospital. You did not have a procedure or surgery or get a cast. You were not given any medication. You were simply examined. This is what it cost to find out that you didn’t have broken ribs or a concussion. This is what it cost to find out that, in addition to the multiple contusions, you have a spinous process fracture of a lumbar vertebra. Where he kicked you. When you were on the floor.

(And yes, thanks to Barack Obama, there is insurance. And the insurance will cover a significant portion of it. But what it doesn’t cover equals more than two months take-home pay. You know, the money you need to save so you can leave.)

With deep thanks and profound respect for the person who allowed me to tell this story.

The photo is cropped from a Google image. It is not the person I am writing about.

May 30, 2018   1 Comment

Familiar Surprise

Yesterday I sat at a little table in a leafy public square nursing first a cappuccino and then two bottles of mineral water while I read a book and people watched, although not in that order, for three hours. Three hours. This is unusual behavior. In fact, the last time I did something like this was the last time I was in Chania (Crete) a year ago. It’s not that I don’t read for hours. It’s not that I don’t drink cappuccinos and mineral water. But people who hang out in public squares in my home country are often the most desperate folks who have nowhere else to go. Sanitized, “safe” public squares are commercialized and/or visibly policed. I have never been tempted to hang out in one for more than a few minutes.

In Splantzia Square, there were groups of old men talking, women with children who chased pigeons, a table of bearded, black-robed Orthodox priests involved in lively conversation, an adventurous little girl on a pink tricycle who momentarily became the center of attention, a man in rumpled linen who looked like he stepped out of a Rembrandt painting, a roving accordionist, four cats (one sleek and well fed, three lean and hungry) and perhaps the most interestingly ugly dog I’ve ever seen.

Life lived for all to see. Public life.

For me, traveling (and temporarily living) in Europe is what is known in storytelling circles as a “familiar surprise.” These countries—on this trip, Austria, Greece—make “sense” to an American. I recognize the many similarities that come from shared philosophies, religion, forms of government (not to mention the thick overlay of U.S. cultural products). Everyone wears jeans. There’s bad pop music on the radio. Same old, same old.

But threaded through, interwoven with the familiarity is the very very different way people live their lives here. There is this public life, in the squares, in the outdoor cafes (in all weather) most of us don’t live in the U.S. There is a joy in extended conversation, hours of conversation, dawdling over dinner, a long lunch with friends not a quick bite eaten at a desk, coffee enjoyed at a street-side table not drive-through coffee downed in a car. There is a distinctly unAmerican pace, reflected in the shorter work weeks, the number of sanctioned state holidays, the frequent festivals and celebrations, the above-mentioned square-sitting. (Interesting factoid: Our long work week, lack of paid holidays and meager vacation time do not add up to top place in worker productivity. All four of the European nations with higher productivity than us have MUCH shorter work weeks.)

The familiar surprise. I love it.

May 23, 2018   4 Comments

How we see the world

We think about, or sometimes try not to think about, how quickly the world is changing around us. I am talking about technology. This is a subject about which I am profoundly ignorant. But I have opinions, dammit!

Every day we are asked to update something (yesterday’s version being, so, you know, yesterday). Every day there are new Apps (like Run Pee, which tells you when you can run and pee without missing an important moment in the movie you are watching). Every day there are new gadgets, new devices. Just 20 years ago I carried a camera, an audio recorder, a note pad, a pen, a little telephone number book, maybe a map, often a pedometer. I wore a watch. My computer sat on my desk next to my telephone answering machine. I had to brush my teeth with a twig. Okay, not that.

Now I have one device—the Austrians call it a “handy,” and it is—that does all of that, and more. That is a huge change. And a fast change.

Yesterday I was reminded of a change I hadn’t really thought about that is far more profound: the change in how we get the images that we hold in our heads. Of course we form those images through seeing, through direct experience. But we also “see” by looking at the images others present us. Today, we see the world through Google images or through posts on Instagram or Facebook, YouTube, satellite pic sites, someone’s blog. We can see everywhere and anywhere, a click, a split-second: Here is the spice market in Istanbul. Here is the Vatnajökull glacier. Here is the backyard of the house I lived in as a child that I have not visited for thirty years.

But what about before the Internet. What about before photography? How did people “see” what they did not experience?

The Aquarell (watercolor) exhibit at The Albertina Museum had one answer for this. Many of the paintings in the exhibit were delicate, evocative, almost ethereal, the way watercolor can be. But the subtext is what interested me. Some of these painters were engaged by adventurers, noblemen and others to document their journeys. The painters used water color—first sketching with pen and ink, then adding color later—because this was a fast way to make a picture, to capture an image: a Parisian street corner, an alpine glacier, a “Gypsy” encampment. They brought the images back as visual records. It is how others saw those distant places. Imagine that.

Imagine never having left your village in Tyrol. Imagine now a trip to Vienna, once in a lifetime. There you see the work of a watercolorist who traveled with a noble across the European continent and chronicled what he saw. Painted it. Those luminous, delicate, evocative images are how you now experience that place. Imagine. I almost can’t.

May 16, 2018   No Comments

Life in the no-Trump zone

Here’s the weird thing. Whenever I’m way from Oregon, even for just a few days, even if I’m just up in Seattle, I get heart-sick. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean I really get sick. I get a pain in my chest and a lump in my throat. It’s a love-ache, like when you pine for somebody who’s not there.

But on the other hand, whenever I’m away from the United States, as I have been for the past week and a half, I feel joy and a lightness of being. I am exhilarated. And I am desperate to stay away, to distance myself from the madness, to make someplace else my home. A few days ago, strolling down a several-mile lane that cuts through the leafy length of The Prater (an extraordinary park in the heart of Vienna), breathing the sweet spring air, humming off-key, it suddenly occurred to me that I was not bludgeoning myself with thoughts about the sociopath in the White House and his lily-livered and unprincipled henchmen/women, or agonizing over school shootings, cop shootings, the NRA, or which new cowardly piece of shit had been called out for his cowardly piece of shit aggression toward a woman or, more likely, multiple women. You know, the new normal back in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

It wasn’t that I was ignorant of the goings-on state-side. I wasn’t on a news fast. The New York Times is delivered to my phone every morning, and I read it. I knew. But I had apparently entered into some meditative state where I acknowledged the information but achieved detachment from it. That’s what being 9 time zones away will do. That’s what being in a country with national health care and virtually free higher education and thirty paid days of vacation every year will do. That’s what being in a country with an incarceration rate ten percent of ours will do. What being in a country with a 98 percent literacy rate where the average amount of time spent READING A NEWSPAPER is 57 minutes will do. This alternate reality has Zenned me out.

And so, I will forgive this country its fat, white, soggy, cheese sauce-smothered asparagus and its Pay to Pee (few and far between) toilets. I will even forgive it for coining
Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, a single, 79-letter word that means Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services. Because this a no-Trump zone. Almost. This morning’s der Standard had a (small) front-page story (no photo!) about our fine and thoughtful president and the Iran nuclear deal. It also included the photo that illustrates today’s blog, featuring two sane, well-spoken world leaders who appear to actually like each other. What a concept.

If it were not for Oregon, my Oregon, I would never return.

May 9, 2018   No Comments

Up, Up and Away

Airborne. 34,824 feet above the earth, following the Columbia east, then across Montana on a diagonal, nosing north to Regina on a path to the far reaches of Manitoba, cutting an arc across Great Hudson’s Bay, nipping the tip of southern tip of Greenland, then undercutting Iceland, before traversing a swatch of the North Atlantic. Boom. Europe in nine hours.

It is still all a miracle to me: How I can get to Amsterdam faster than I can drive to San Francisco. How this enormous machine with more than 300 people aboard can defy gravity. How I can sit here gazing out the window, taking cloud pics, writing, drinking Perrier with lime, when for so very many years I told myself I could not get on an airplane. I would not fly. I could not fly. I was a person who did not fly. That was my identity. That was the looped tape inside my head.

I had had one of those flying experiences early in my college years that makes you promise eternal devotion to God, vow to be good forever and swear to never ever be airborne again if only the plane you are on will land safely and you will not die. The plane landed safely. I did not die. God did not become a fixture in my life. I was not good forever. But I did keep one promise: I did not get on another plane for 25 years.

I didn’t stop traveling. I took trains back and forth across the U.S., a happy passenger exploring just about every Amtrak route in America. I had adventures. I wrote magazine stories about trains. I told myself that I was just a train person. Maybe so. But I was also a person afraid to fly.

And then, three things happened. (#1) I was riding along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Willamette River bike path on a particularly beautiful fall day, and I thought, all of a sudden: what if I just took off the (metaphorical) backpack weighing me down, the one with the old tapes about what I could and couldn’t do, what I convinced myself I was afraid of. What if I stopped my bike, shook off the damned backpack and just left it by the side of the road. Metaphorically, not litter-ly. So I did.

Then (#2) I met, through a friend, a lovely woman named Rosemarie who practiced something called “creative visualization, which I assumed was New Age bullshit. But it wasn’t. And she gracefully guided me through peaceful, empowering scenarios that allowed me to create new tapes inside my head.

And then (#3) I got a surprise invitation to be a guest on the David Letterman show for one of my books. (The short notice would make a train impossible). For some reason, I thought this would make my career, It didn’t. But it did get me on a plane. (I have a Xanax-dimmed memory of my husband dragging me down the jetway. It was an ordeal, #1 and #2 and psychopharmaceutial enhancements notwithstanding.) But I did it.

Since then, going on 20 years ago, I have boarded scores of planes in scores of airports to scores of destinations. That’s what I’m doing right now. I am on a big bird flying across a continent and an ocean and a chunk of another continent.

I write this not to boast about my travels but to tell anyone out there—and you know who you are—that you CAN replace that no-I-can’t/ no-I-never-will tape inside your head, you can write a new narrative, you can do what you have so long been afraid to do. You can take to the skies.

May 2, 2018   1 Comment