Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas blessing

First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till...the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and God's light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

For the past eleven Christmases, a middle school student has read this beautiful piece at the Christmas Eve pageant at our church, First Congregational Church in Boulder. Like all true wisdom, it gets to me every time, reminding me that true love is possible NOW.

Christians rejoice today because Christmas Day is the culmination of Advent's waiting and watching for the birth of love. The day reminds me not to wait to give of myself, such as when I'm richer, or thinner, or happier, or more successful. These things may never happen. But today, and tomorrow, I can share a good word, a smile, a timely message, a comforting hug. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I dare you to say the wrong thing

This week I took my son Patrick to the dentist to get his 12-year-old molars sealed. He's been going to Dr. Jones, a pediatric dentist, since he was three. This visit went much better than the first one. Patrick bit him! Patrick didn't understand that it's OK for the dentist to "tickle" his teeth.

The billing clerk, a woman I've seen at least twice a year for the last 13 years, was dressed all in pink--a pink ballcap, a pink hoodie, and the telltale buzzcut to go along with it. I asked her, "What's with all the pink?" Turns out she's being treated for cancer, and wearing pink is a way, besides the hairstyle, to begin a conversation. Apparently, her tactic isn't going as expected. A lot of people glance at her and literally run the other way. Others come back the second time around and ask after her health. Most say nothing.

Cancer sucks. And, it turns out, it's lonely. It would be easy to ascribe the worst motives to the "currently able-bodied," as one of my yoga students recently put it, as a skulking, cowardly lot who act as if cancer's contagious. Maybe that's true in a very few cases. But it's more likely that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they opt to say nothing at all.

But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. It's like the co-worker whose child was killed in a car accident. You don't know what to say. You might say the wrong thing and make things worse. You don't want to provoke a grief response. But come on, who are you really protecting? So many people are facing life-threatening illnesses or have suffered losses that you'd have to be living in a bubble not to have met someone going through bad times.

So I dare you: Go ahead, say the wrong thing. At least you'll show you care. Better yet, start the conversation, and let them talk. The worst that can happen--you might learn something. And someone who hasn't felt OK that day, or in the days previous, might feel better.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wall Street Occupiers Are Onto Something

One Tuesday morning a month, I have the privilege of serving a group of septu- and octogenarians who come to Cheese Importers for our petit dejeuner consisting of excellent coffee from Unseen Bean, baguettes from Breadworks, excellent French butter and assorted preserves. They are a delight--smart, politically engaged and good tippers. They are also what I aspire to be in my later years--yeah, yeah, I turned 50 last week, it's closer than I think--not a cougar, but a Gray Panther. One man in the group is reliably conservative, doing what conservatives do--putting the brakes on change perceived to be accelerating too quickly. Conservatives can't stop progress. They can only slow change, and there's a need for it. Sometimes change needs to ripen a little before it's ready.

In February they were discussing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and this man said, "I don't know what these demonstrators stand for. I do know what Mubarak stands for. What they're doing scares me, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood is involved." Interesting point. At the time, though, I thought, why is one dictator tolerable, when another was deemed intolerable and removing him from power was a stated goal of the Iraq War?

So it is with the Wall Street Occupiers, and the other occupiers that are sprouting up around capitol buildings in the U.S. and elsewhere. Five weeks into their protests, the media accuses them of not having a coherent message. U.S. House Majority whip Eric Cantor calls the protestors "thugs" and "Un-American." My question to Rep. Cantor is the same as to my guest at Cheese Importers: Why is one group of protestors (The Tea Party) called patriotic, while the Occupiers are called Nixonian epithets?

To me, the Occupiers' message is loud and clear. The only thing that surprises me is that it took this long for people to have their "Network" moment--"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it any more!" about post-bailout Wall Street prosperity when Main Streets across the land are shriveling up. As I understand it, the message is that our elected representatives need to stop failing we the people and feeding us promises that trickle-down economics will work for all of us, some day. Just be patient, and trust your leaders. Go back home, even if it's to the back seat of your car. The so-called "job creators," who are unelected and therefore unaccountable to anyone but their shareholders (and even that's questionable), need to start investing in a country that is crumbling around us as they keep stockpiling profits for some future rainy day. That day is here, folks.

It doesn't help when the governor of my state, John Hickenlooper, is quoted as saying in response to Occupy Denver: "What they feel is the government has let them down and Wall Street and the big corporate banks and trade companies have run roughshod over the federal government. We hear that. I can't control that."

Bullshit, Gov. Government can control whether they allow investment banks to engage in the same shenanigans that got us into this mess in the first place. And government didn't get the job done. I could say it was Republican obstructionism that kept the Dodd-Frank law from having any real impact on preventing future catastrophic investment schemes. But that would only be half right. President Obama could have shamed Republicans into supporting a law that would make unscrupulous investing a crime. Instead he settled for a law that practically guarantees that history will repeat itself.

Our government and our financial institutions and corporations continue this dance to everyone's peril. We don't need to look any further than the Arab Spring. All the young Tunisian street vendor who immolated himself was asking for was the opportunity to sell his produce in the market. The Tunisian dictatorship put so many obstacles in the way of this kind of commerce that despair overwhelmed him. Those who survived him were emboldened to begin openly protesting the dictatorship that was preventing them from making a proper living. I risk sounding like a pop culture Wurlitzer when I quote Bob Dylan: "When you ain't got nothing/ You got nothing to lose/After they took from you everything they could steal." It is in any country's best interests to make sure its people can earn a decent living, that each person has the dignity of a decent education, and a decent chance to earn a living and care for their families and make whatever contribution they are able to make.

I'm not advocating a welfare state. It's about making sure people know how to fish for themselves, instead of shaking their hand before you throw them overboard and expect them to swim.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Place of Whoa!

As my family and I were coming down the Moffat Tunnel trail, three preschool-age kids were rushing ahead of their parents at a moderately steep part of the hike. One of the little kids, who looked to be about four, was chugging along as fast as his little legs would carry him up the hill. With wide eyes, he excitedly told his friends, "We're almost through the place of woe!"

I started to giggle at the unlikeliness of a four-year-old knowing about "the place of woe." The adults who were bringing up the rear smiled knowingly.

Just what is this place of woe, and where did such a youngster come across it? At first I thought it was some Tolkien reference, and that maybe he and his buddies were pretending to be Sam and Frodo running away from Orcs. That seemed unlikely. I didn't read the trilogy until a few of my fifth-grade classmates told me it was better than the Nancy Drew mystery novels I was wasting my time on. They were right, though this is the first time I'm publicly admitting it.

Talking about the Place of Whoa! was definitely more age-appropriate. But why would anyone be excited about coming to the end of the Place of Whoa!? In the context of hiking, the Place of Whoa! is a gorgeous visit, made all the more gorgeous because it took some effort to get to it. Witnessing a huge thunderstorm through the safety of the picture windows in our living room is another Place of Whoa! Or waves crashing to shore after a storm is also Whoa!-worthy.

I googled "place of woe" and got nothing related to LOTR. There was the Fissure of Woe, a GuildWars Wikia, a game he might have played. Though probably not. There was also this link about play structures, but I doubt even this brainy little guy would have found this site very interesting.

So he probably just made it up, putting snippets of words together in the original way kids do. It reminds me of the book our son Geoff published in kindergarten. The subject was what he wanted to be when he grew up. This was his dinosaur phase. He lived and breathed everything dino-related. So did he want to be a doctor or a teacher or a writer or a bricklayer? Nope, he wanted to be a dinosaur, and not just any dinosaur, but the most bad-ass of all dinos, Albertosaurus.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Work Is

Last week I was working the deli counter at Cheese Importers. Two women came up to order coffee. I recognized one as the mother of my son's teammates. We made some Momtalk as I made their espresso.

"How long have you worked here?" she asked. When I said I'd worked there for a year, she said, "That's good of you."

I smoothed over the strangeness of that comment by keeping the chatter going and the coffee coming. As soon as she left, my co-worker said, "What the hell kind of comment was that?"

I asked him if he thought her remark was condescending. He shrugged. "Who else is going to make her coffee?"

Who else, indeed? Perhaps she might have felt more comfortable if a pimply-faced twenty-something had handed her a coffee, instead of someone who has children the same age.

There are assumptions embedded in her remark, namely that I'm at an age where I should be doing something to improve the world. Something more personally prosperous. Or maybe I just can't cut it in the world of competition and industry.

Her remark prompted a memory of nearly thirty years earlier. My then-boyfriend and I were driving up the coast to San Francisco when I mentioned that one of my sisters was dating a man whose family owned a tire dealership. He snorted and said, "Why would anyone want to own a tire dealership?"

"It just so happens," I replied, "that the car you're driving has tires. I'd say that's filling a need."

I could have told her that ten years of raising my children was industry enough for me, and that Rip Van Winkle-like, the print and publishing industry I had been part of for the previous ten years was unrecognizable to me. I could have told her what better contribution to civilization could I have made than to raise well-adjusted, warm-hearted kids. I could have told her I'm lucky to have a job at all in this economy, much less at one of Longmont's main attractions. I could have told her I'm a yoga teacher. A writing coach who helps people tell their stories in the best way they can, something I never could have done when I worked as an editor. I could have told her people everywhere are making whatever contribution they can, and that she could stand to update her attitudes about what constitutes valuable work.

I think I'll let the words of our country's current poet laureate, Philip Levine, carry the day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jacq of all trades

My dad retired after working for the Defense Contracts Administration for nearly 30 years. My father-in-law worked for Otis Elevator/United Technologies his entire career. My husband Don worked for his group at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research for 15 years. He's technically a University of Colorado employee now, but he works in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Boulder. If Congress has its way, he may be caught up in the budget slashing that is currently the rage in D.C.

I'm not just listing the achievements of the important men in my life, Genesis-style. I list their longevity in their careers because it might very well be a casualty of our economy's poor condition. It might very well be that the way I'm cobbling together my diverse skills, as a food service employee, a yoga teacher, an author and blogger, and a writing coach, could be how more of us pay our way.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Right Sizing the Ego

For years I've been told by authorities in books and by people I know that spiritual growth is dependent on the right sizing of the ego. As someone who has allowed low self-esteem to shape my life, I would listen respectfully to advice to check the ego and politely conclude it didn't apply to me. Because how could it? My problem was not enough ego.

In the home stretch of this phase of yoga teacher training, it's pretty clear that this advice does indeed apply to me. My ego is attached to the fact that I don't have to work on surrendering it because I never really had an ego to begin with. Father Tom at Resurrection University Catholic Parish in Bozeman observed that there were no in betweens for me. I considered myself to be either the best person, or the worst person. I didn't get what he was trying to tell me then. Negotiating those extremes was my idea of balancing. I wish I could say I've steadily advanced toward the Buddha's Middle Way since my mid-twenties. It's only been during the course of the yoga training that I've had to come to terms with just how much I'm getting in my own way, which is, by the way, the very definition of excessive ego involvement.

For instance, my academic training in English and journalism was all about honing inquiry, a great skill to have as a writer and an interviewer. Not so great for a yoga teacher trainee. Experience, not intellectualism, is where it's at. I can get there, if I persist in feeling and experiencing the postures and pranayama and meditation instruction. I've been told repeatedly to stop asking so many questions and to be less verbose in my cueing of the postures. I could resist this advice and hide behind my academic training and the fact that I'm a writer, and that I'm bringing these things to my teaching. That's all well and good and probably true for me. But what do my yoga teachers care about that when I have so much more to learn? Incorporating my life experience into my teaching is something that comes later. I'm not there to get my analytical and writing skills validated. Learning to teach students the postures is much more urgent work. I have other skills to develop, other talents to tap into. That's what I signed up for.

And it's not only the experience I need, I want it. Or I would have gone away a month ago as it became clear to me that I was exasperating three of my five teachers with my resistance to listening and experiencing, rather than speaking and analyzing. This is really what the training is about--abiding with the practice, no matter what comes at me. That's only fair. If I'm going to ask students to abide in the practice, I need to have that foundation myself.

One of my teachers gave me some great advice. As I'm cueing a class into a posture, cue one sentence, and then take a deep breath. Then add one more cue, and take another breath. She also suggested I take a breath before I ask a question or make an observation. Actually, in my case, I need to take three breaths, and if the questions or observation is still there, then it's probably worthwhile to say something. Otherwise, just keep breathing.

So I'm going to do a good deal more breathing than talking from now on. Here's hoping that adds some potency to my thoughts and words.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Limits of Cold Turkey

I'm a little bit more than halfway through my twelve-week yoga teacher training. I didn't know just how much I was signing up for. What is demanded of me is nothing less than transformation. Going in, I knew I needed some work, but really? I'll never be able to go to another yoga class without thinking about the way I'm being taught,? Couldn't I just go and be guided, without critiquing the nature of the guiding?

The answer is no.There's no going back, if I'm really taking all of the teaching I'm receiving to heart. And I am. Despite the calls to change my sloppy, lazy and garrulous ways as a yoga practitioner and as a human being, it's all been done with my best intentions in mind. For the first time in my life, I've been able to accept this as the constructive advice it is, instead of allowing myself to nurse hurt feelings and thereby resist doing what I know deep in my heart needs to be done.

I have never wanted to quit. I've been told, very yogically of course, to curb my tendency to chatter too much as I teach (and in general), to seriously work on improving my physical imbalances (I won't bore you with those, except to say they begin in my feet and have worked their insidious way up), and to completely change the way I approach the poses. This last involves changing the patterns I've built up over the previous eleven years of practice. I'm in the beginning stages of this process, and it won't be complete when I graduate on August 17. It's only the beginning.

In the same way, it's only the beginning of our country's struggle to deal with the debt problem. Our leaders are not going to wave some magic wand and make all our troubles go away by year's end. These problems have been a long time in the making, and it's going to take some time to undo our addiction to debt.

When dealing with any addiction, cold turkey is strong medicine. Anyone who's ever gone through drug or alcohol withdrawal will tell you that the physical and emotional tremors are overwhelming. Heroin addicts would come off the drug with methadone. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends the cessation of all alcohol. Many alcoholics have tobacco addictions, too, but the wise course of action is to deal with one addiction at a time. Otherwise, the chance of relapsing is too high.

The same is true with debt. That's why Congress needs to quit dithering and raise the debt ceiling already. Going cold turkey on debt has consequences ordinary people like you and me cannot begin to fathom. And forget about listening to Tea Party demagogues, who insist people who've studied world economies are exaggerating. Ignore the Tea Partyers, and listen to the experts.

Megan McArdle, a business and economics writer for The Atlantic, who is incidentally no great fan of the Obama administration, writes that linking the rise of the debt ceiling to budget reform is a form of blackmail. Here she writes about the consequences of failing to bite the debt bullet this year:

"The tea-partiers who are proud to stick to their guns are not actually tough enough to weather the television coverage of homeless families, the doctors regretfully turning away their Medicare patients, the angry constituents beating down their office doors.  They'll fold--but not until they've lost virtually all their capital, and have no way to get back in the game.

"I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there is no game-theoretic substitute for political legitimacy. There is no neat strategic maneuver which will allow you to bypass the American public and cut their government benefits by 40% overnight if they don't want you to.  And if you think that the American public actually wants you to do it . . . well, then it's not Washington, DC that's out of touch with the rest of America."
Let's say our country's addiction to debt is analogous to heroin addiction, and raising the debt ceiling is methadone, a necessary but lesser evil to letting the addict rattle himself to death. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that we can be on methadone for the rest of our lives. It's time to get serious about negotiating budget cuts and tax increases. Because there are some things we can as Americans agree we all need to support--good schools, clean air and water, decent roads, affordable health care, a sustainable energy policy. And that means paying our taxes, because we're responsible adults who want to live in a civil society. 
There's no going back, just as there's no going back for me in my yoga training and future adventures in the practice. Destroying institutions that have benefited society, just because a small minority of anti-tax crusaders are telling us we can't afford them, or worse, that education and the EPA are evils that deserve to be destroyed, is definitely the wrong way to go. Notice they have no vision of what America could be--just so long as they can keep their money out of the tax coffers. All they're proposing is that the so-called job creators will suddenly free up the $2.9 trillion dollars they're sitting on to create jobs. The time to do that was nearly three years ago, when financial institutions and the auto companies received their bailout from the American people. It's time to stop waiting around for these so-called "job creators" to give us the jobs 15 million of us need now. Job creation has been voluntary, and the "job creators" have clearly chosen not to. Taxpayers involuntarily paid to bail out these "job creators" in their hour of need. Now is the time for them to reciprocate. Justice would look like raising the debt ceiling and taxes on the wealthy. Only then our leaders can do the gritty work of  reconfiguring what the nation needs, and what it can afford.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Author This!

Author This!

The Art of Discovering and Trusting Your Own Voice

Diana Shellenberger

From a talk delivered at the Longmont Writers Club, June 18, 2011.

Let me briefly tell you a little about myself and my adventures in publishing. I worked as a proofreader for Stinehour Press, a fine arts press in northern Vermont, that primarily printed catalogues for East Coast museum exhibits. I worked as an editor for Greenhaven Press in San Diego, researching and choosing articles for its “Opposing Viewpoints” anthology series and writing introductions and discussion questions. I was a writer and editor for the Association of Brewers, primarily working on a national bimonthly trade magazine and also generating member newsletters and compiling compliance information pertaining to brewing and the sale of alcohol beverages. Over the last eleven years, I raised my family and worked as much as possible at freelance writing. Along the way I published articles and short stories in a variety of publications, and I also wrote two novels in the time when my kids were in school. I dutifully followed the advice of people who shared their wisdom about the publishing process. Like most authors I got more nays than yays.

When Ardelle Gifford called me last winter to invite me to speak today, one of the first things she said was, “Of course we’re all on the eternal quest to get published.”

That’s because whatever medium you choose to write in, whether you’re a poet, or an essayist or a novelist, you want to share what you write. Writers’ clubs are a great way to share your writing and give and receive affirmation and feedback. I know that several small groups meet in between Longmont Writers’ Club meetings to share and discuss their writing. But of course, there’s nothing like getting published to share your thoughts and ideas with a large audience.

I suggest taking a step away from a publishing-centered focus and direct your focus to yourself as a writer—to author this, your life, your self, alongside the writing you do. One of my literary heroes is Wallace Stegner, who said, “If you are a grower and a writer as well, your writing should get better and larger and wiser. But how you teach that, the Lord knows.”

How you teach that is what I’ve been learning for at least the last ten years, through the multiple trial-and-error process I’ve hatched. Teaching you how to do this is what I aim to do in this talk. Enlarging myself as a person is what I’ve been doing, all my life really, but intensively in the last ten years or so. The idea is that by enlarging yourself as a person you enlarge yourself as a writer. Part of that process is helping you identify how to first discover, exercise, trust and speak and write in your own voice as you prepare to publish your writing.

A couple of years ago, it came to my attention that the way I was working, as a writer and as someone seeking publishing—and they are two different things—was not serving me. For one thing I was confused about the distinction between the two. I thought I was looking to get published, when what I was really looking for was affirmation, of my writing and the things I was writing about, but also of myself as a writer and a person.

Now I’m not saying that seeking affirmation for your writing is wrong. Letting affirmation for your writing double as affirmation for yourself, however, is asking for trouble. What happens if the affirmation is a long time in coming? Does that mean that what you’re writing and the way you’re living are both wrong? I’m here to say that they’re not.

In The New Yorker’s summer 2011 fiction edition, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ ”

Lahiri is a great example of someone who toiled in obscurity for a long time before writing a book, Interpreter of Maladies,  that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Many of the ideas she included in this book were rejected numerous times by other publishers. I can only guess when I say this, because I don’t know Ms. Lahiri, but she must have kept going because she believed in what she was writing. Just as importantly, she believed in herself. Author this.

One of the things I have found most irritating about the mystery of getting published is that it makes me into the kind of person I don’t admire—an approval-seeking, dependent creature, rather than the willful, independent person Lahiri says it’s necessary to become in order to even write in the first place. This approval-seeking and dependency makes me afraid to send anything out into the world for fear some all-powerful editor or publisher will baptize it in red ink or send it back to me in pieces with “shit” angrily scrawled on each piece. This actually happened to Professor Greg Keeler, who taught poetry at Montana State University. I’m pleased to report that he survived this assault quite nicely, and has become one of Montana’s most prominent singer/songwriters, in the cowboy/poet tradition.

What I offer you today are ways to discover and appreciate some of the qualities that make you you, and find the courage to introduce them into your writing. No, to actually saturate your writing with them. And you don’t have to win the Pulitzer or any other prize to succeed at doing this. For Greg Keeler, one of his virtues is humor. He can make jokes about everything, most endearingly about himself. The first time my husband met was at an English Department picnic outside Bozeman. Don was expecting to feel out of place among a bunch of literary types. He was getting his masters in geology. Greg had made these comic books, “Poetry Man,” with himself as the subject and the target, both literally and figuratively. He invited everyone there to take one of his kids’ BB-guns and shoot at a copy of the comic book he’d nailed to a post (come on, it’s Montana), which featured a caricature of his face on the cover. This charmed Don and put him at his ease. This is what he does with his art, too.

There is an art of discovering your gifts and sounding the right tone about them. You can almost never go wrong if you share what you’ve been given. The best writers, or artists, or people, are generous. They are adept at making the ordinary into something extraordinary, through the unique way they experience the world and marry those observations to writing.

Workshop break #1: So I invite you to do just this for seven to eight minutes—write something that takes the ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary. I’ve been lucky to have had many good teachers. One of the best was Marilyn Whirry, my eleventh-grade English teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, whose timed writings were the best preparation a young writer could have. She went on to win the 2000 National Teacher of the Year Award. We’d come into class, having read The Great Gatsby,or A Farewell to Arms, and Marilyn would spring a timed writing on us. A timed writing consisted of an evocative question based on our reading and class discussions, and we had thirty minutes to organize our thoughts and write an essay. As terrifying as they were, I can think of no better preparation for thinking on your feet and expressing yourself on the fly. My adventures with timed writings surely contributed to my success at winning a couple of editorial writing contests when I was a senior in high school.

As a prompt, I’ll read a passage from Paul Harding’s book, Tinkers. See how he takes something completely ordinary, like the sky reflected over a pond as a storm blows in, and makes it into something extraordinary, even supernatural, I think. You are welcome to recall a storm you’ve seen come in. Think of something everyone has witnessed, but that only you, with your eyes and memory life experience, can describe. Just start somewhere and see where you go.

Tempest Borealis: 1. The sky turned silver. The pond turned silver from the silver sky. It looked like a pool of mercury. The wind blew and the trees showed the silver-green undersides of their leaves. The sky turned from silver to green. We went to the dock where our wooden rowboats were tied by their noses to aluminum cleats. The wood of the dock was bleached silvery white. We knelt at the edge of the dock and leaned close to the water, so that the silver sky skin disappeared and we saw twigs and weeds and minnows and blood-pumped leeches squiggling along. We could not see them, but we knew that small silver-bellied brook trout hover out of our view, several feet away, just under where the sky skin started again, beyond the ends of the boats. The trout were invisible in the water, green-backed like weeds and the green-black water grass, until they rolled over and broke the water skin to eat insects and showed their silver-green undersides. 2. Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs and small trout and silver minnows. Thunder cracked like falling timber and shook the cabin as it clapped the water skin. 

Creativity Scale

Another thing to look at as you discover your particular writing voice is to assess how you’re working with talent, experience, imagination and practice. What’s really a given is that all of you here have writing talent and are hoping to maximize it. But let’s not overstate the role of talent in this undertaking. The good news is that you need talent less than the other factors—experience, imagination and practice. You can continue to progress in imagination and experience and practice. In fact these three are a never-ending font for all writers. Talent is a given. Finding the balance between them is a creative process in its own right.

My oldest son, who’s nineteen and just finished his freshman year in college, is a good example of someone with a huge amount of talent. He didn’t really speak very much until his second birthday, and then he started speaking in complete sentences. He started reading before he was three. While that was a startling and wonderful achievement, over time it was clear it was too much too soon—especially if you buy into the model that forward progress is a continuous and predictable thing. No one can ever take that achievement away from him. But eventually some of the other kids his age caught up with him and surpassed him.

It was the same the first time he stepped onto a soccer field. He clearly understood the basics of the game more than the other kids, and he continued to progress—though again, not as much as others as the years went by. He still leans on those memories of early and effortless success. He does, however, have a natural talent for learning that I would daresay most if not all of us in this room share. His growing edge is in continuing to augment his natural talent with a zeal for developing what he has.

I’ve noticed that early success is often unsustainable. This is where experience comes in. Experience is what comes at us, and what we retain. We can seek out experience and allow experience. Along the way we’ll develop powers of observation so that we’ll always be ready to squeeze the most from any experience we have. Many writers have produced widely-read books that are directly based on their experiences. I am especially fond of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a chronicle of the author’s drive with his dog as a companion around the country. Steinbeck was a great creative artist who knew how to make sense of his own personal experiences. He allowed his experiences to inform his art, proving what I believe to be true—experience is also the raw material of imagination. Your experiences can feed into your writing, either very directly or more subtly. The examples I’ve already used, Steinbeck’s Travels and Harding’s Tinkers, are a good example of the direct and subtle effects experience can have on writing.

Practice is the worker bee arena. This is perhaps the area that Americans feel most comfortable in. It’s concrete. You can work with it every day and measure your progress in pages or insights. Writing in my journal every day is the backbone of my writing practice. I love to work. I am good at work. I can work until the cows come home. Work is my heritage. It’s play that’s hard for me.

And imagination is ultimately play. Imagination is more a process of allowing than working toward a goal. Imagination is following a train of thought, rather than being someone who creates a train of thought. When I say I “play” games, ultimately there’s so much strategy that I’m working more than I’m playing. Playing is letting go of expectation. It isn’t goal-oriented. It’s pure fun, pure pleasure, pure delight. Think of kids playing hackey-sack for hours. The only goal is keeping the sack in play. However you did that was up to every individual in the circle. Going to the beach is pure play for me. I can walk along the shore for hours digging for sand crabs and hunting for seashells. The beach is a place where I can let go. Of course there is no beach in Colorado. That’s where imagination comes in. In my imagination I can be on that beach in southern California.

Jen Knox, an author and writing coach, writes on her blog, called Literary Exhibitionism, “Artists don’t wait for approval, and they don’t wait for anyone else to tell them that they’re good. But they do have to wait until they think work is ready. They are true to the voice (that elusive thing!), and they make that voice as strong as possible through hard work and constant reevaluation.”

Yes! I mostly agree with Jen. I’ve touched on how waiting for approval/permission is deadly to the process of discerning your voice. Hard work? Yup, but up to a point.

Here’s why I’m a little skeptical of the hard work thing. In the same interview I quoted earlier, Wallace Stegner was asked about his recommendations for a working regimen or routine.  “Different kinds of writers devise different strategies. (So far, so good.) My own experience is primarily that of the novelist, and a novel is a long, long agony. (Mine, too. But does it have to be?) When Bill Styron described it as like setting out to walk from Vladiovostok to Spain on your knees, he was not just making a phrase.”This

Jinkies. I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering when it gets fun. That’s what I’m looking for, as much as getting published, is very joy of creation, not just the labor. I’d lost that joy.

During these past couple of years, I’ve recalibrated my relationship to my writing life and work. I’ve had to figure out how to become a person who writes, without being a person who gets published. I want to share with you eight things I’ve discovered:

  1. Do other things.
  2. Write every day.
  3. Figure out what kind of writer you are.
  4. Accept that criticism is coming your way, but don’t accept all criticism.
  5. Make hypersensitivity your friend.
  6. Learn the difference between observation and judgment.
  7. Care for yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
  8. Educate yourself about the craft of writing.
  9. Be content to make a contribution, not write the end-all, be-all on the subject.

Do other things.

If you’re suffering through an especially bad bout of writer’s block, do other things. In the past two years I’ve done other things, while still writing almost every day, but without putting the same pressure on myself to submit to the submission/waiting/rejection/acceptance cycle. I got a paid job at Cheese Importers, one of Longmont’s best attractions.

I highly recommend volunteering time to serve others. Writing in its purest form is service, whether it’s imparting information, delighting someone, sharing a grand vision or influencing public opinion. The experiences you have while working and volunteering can easily become great fodder for your writing. In my case, it eased the uselessness and purposelessness that can lead to depression. It also musters courage and faith to do other things when the writing and the publishing aren’t heading in the direction you’d hoped for.

If you’ve got a hobby, do that. Cooking is one of my hobbies. When I’m feeling stuck in my writing, there’s nothing like making a couple of loaves of breads to regain my sense that yes, I can make something. The batter starts out as yeast, sugar and water, all bubbly potential, but it won’t really be anything until after I’ve added all the ingredients and kneaded it and set it to rise. It’s a nice metaphor for the writing process. There’s a time there where you’re not sure anything will come together, but if you give it enough skill and time, it does become something.

My friend Mike Starling, who worked with me at the association, is now working for a publisher in Chicago editing a magazine that serves the paint industry. When Mike took the job eleven years ago, he found himself writing, editing and photographing. He took that as a challenge. Now he sends me the most beautiful photographs of things that catch his eye, and he also made a book of photographs he took during a trip to Holland.

Mike also has been a member of a band since he was in college. By the time he hit 40, he realized the whole rock star thing wasn’t going to happen, but he loved music and still wanted to make it and share it. Along the way he met people who were managing to make a living in music, while not hitting it rich and famous ala Richards and Jagger. Mike writes and performs his music and sells CDs on his website.My pointing telling you all this is that creative people find ways to be creative.

Write every day

What works for me, and has worked for thousands of writers and other artists, is to write what TheArtist’s Way author Julia Cameron recommends—three pages every morning. She’s gone around the world teaching people to reclaim their creativity and use it to benefit others as well as themselves. I’m not talking three outlined, organized and purposeful pages, but first-thing-in-the-morning pages that are a way to begin your day with committing words to the page, even if—especially if—they’re petty, nagging, whining words. Sometimes once you get these unflattering words out of the way, good stuff comes out. Get a cup of coffee and sit in your favorite writing perch with your 8 x 10 notebook, and get to it. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years. I’ve kept a daily journal since my mom gave me one for my birthday when I was eight. The morning pages are like cleaning the pipes. First you flush out the junk, then the pure water can flow through again. It has made me a more fluent thinker, speaker and writer, all with an investment of 30 to 35 minutes a day. Try it. I also recommend getting a copy of The Artist’s Way and doing some of the exercises Cameron has invented.

Cameron shows how to use the morning pages as a resource, by going back through them every few weeks and picking out the gems that will be in there. Everything, even morning pages, can be redeemed. I got the idea for my second novel from my morning pages. I wrote about a dream I’d had, and the dream was so evocative it became the beginning of a book.

She also talks about the virtues of doing other creative things like making soup, painting a room in your house, listening to a beautiful piece of music (Mozart’s “Requiem” often does the trick for me), arranging some flowers. Anything, really to keep creativity flowing. Eventually it will flow from your fingertips into your keyboard, or onto the pages of your notebook, whichever method you use to compose your writing.

An aside: I discovered that I write better when I write longhand. For years I wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter, remember those? When those went extinct, I composed on a computer. I wrote most of my articles and my entire first novel that way. For my second novel I accidentally stumbled on how much better my writing came out in first draft form. I would take my youngest son to cross country practice at Sandstone Ranch. I don’t own a laptop, so I’d take a notebook. I figured the best that would happen was that I’d write down ideas. To my surprise, I wrote the beginning of the novel in longhand, using the computer to transcribe and to edit. I believe using the computer as a composition tool was psyching me out and blocking me.

Figure out what kind of writer you are.

One of my favorite stories is from Caitlin Flanagan, an acclaimed essayist for the Atlantic, has called herself “a failed novelist.”  She had the idea that she needed to explore her imagination more, and the novel was just the thing. The only problem was, she couldn’t do it without it coming out in a way she could never be proud of. So she’s gone on to write controversial magazine essays, primarily about what she believes is the proper role of mothers. I frequently disagree with her, and frankly she exasperates me, but there’s no denying she makes provocative arguments and turns a great phrase.

Do you know where your true power as a writer is expressed? I have some talent as a fiction writer—Jen Knox and others who have read work comment on my ability with dialogue. Jen went so far to suggest I explore screenwriting, an idea I immediately scoffed at. It’s hard enough to get my fiction published. Now you want me to up the ante and go into an even more competitive field? I don’t think I have the strength for that. I figure dialogue comes naturally to me because I grew up yakking with my two sisters and other chatty female family members and friends.

But where I believe I’m strongest is in the personal essay. Talking about my experiences, much like I’m doing today, and making sense of them, comes the most naturally to me. So I’m going with that. I’m exploring this on my blog, The Low Three Figures. In it I take on issues of value and worth based on current events and stuff that happens in my life.

Ask yourself a few questions. Of your work, what has gotten the most response? When I say response, I mean both affirming and challenging. Whatever responses you’re getting are a guide to how your writing is being received, whether or not it resonates with others.

How much moral support do you need? Do you prefer to meet with other writers to share work? Or do you toil privately? Do you alternate between the two extremes? What do you do when it’s not going so well? I find myself alternating between all of these things.

Figuring out what kind of writer you are is critical to discovering your true voice, the one that comes out naturally. I remember one of the first times that happened as an adult. I was in a magazine writing class where we were required to write three articles over the course of the semester, along with doing market research and writing cover letters to actual publications. I had written an article on Lyndon La Rouche—remember him? the tax-evading perennial presidential candidate? One of my classmates observed in the critique of my article that she could hear my voice—sarcastic and conversational. That meant I’d done my job. In that piece I had managed to break down the barrier between my speaking and thinking voice and my writing voice. I would encourage you to look for the same markers in your own writing. The more you bring yourself into your writing, the better it will be. Not your idealized self, but you as you are. I’m not so sure I want to own the sarcastic part of my voice, but it’s there, and it works, because it’s me.

 Accept that criticism is coming your way, but don’t accept all criticism.

In fact subjecting yourself to criticism is the only way you’re ever going to improve as a writer, especially if you aspire to publish. Anyone who reads your work and doesn’t get what you’re saying is going to have a similar experience to someone who doesn’t know you. Take what they say to heart, and see how you respond in your writing.

In the vein of doing other things, this summer I’m doing a 12-week yoga teacher training. I’ve been a student of yoga for 11 years, so going into it I thought, I already know so much about yoga, this is going to be a cake walk. Uh, wrong. So wrong. I’m getting my butt kicked, physically and spiritually. I told one of my teachers that I thought I was signing up to teach people the postures, when it’s dawning on me that I signed up for a crash course in enlightenment! It’s humbling to make the transition from being a student to being a teacher, who must know in intimate detail all her imbalances, and how to addrerss them. In a very real way, I’m re-learning how to walk and to stand, at the age of 49. Every time I go to class I am required to teach the postures and accept what the yogis there call a “star and a wish.” I won’t go into specifics, other than to say that unlike a lot of areas in life, there’s nothing left unsaid. It may be kindly and helpfully delivered, but it humbles. It reshapes. And that’s inherently painful. It’s also been helpful and transformational. This is the kind of criticism that is really needed, even if we manage to skirt it in most other areas of our lives. I’m editing my life history as surely as I’ve edited my writing.

Let me talk about the “good” kind of criticism first. Recognizing that all growth is painful, even when it’s leading to somewhere better than we currently find ourselves. My collaboration with Jen Knox is a good example of good criticism. Jen is am award-winning novelist and essayist who is graduate of the Bennington College Writer’s Workshop. We met online when I submitted a story to I received the nicest rejection notice I’ve ever gotten from her. She told me what she liked about the story and what she thought needed improvement, with actual concrete suggestions. She also affirmed my ability as a storyteller, and ended by offering her services as a workshop leader. I workshopped another story with her, going four rounds over the same story, with really vigorous and specific editing. I recommend working with Jen or any of the other outstanding writers and editors on Our Stories. It might strike some of you as unconventional, but it’s the way a lot of writing collaboration is being done now.

Funny aside: the story Jen and I workshopped has never been published, while the one she and Our Stories passed on got published in Paradigm Journal. I still believe in the story she and I workshopped.

When I was a kid, I took losing any game, whether it was Parcheesi or soccer, as a referendum on my worthiness as a person. Eventually I outgrew this, at least as far as board games and sports goes. I was on a volleyball team that went 0-17 one season, and though I admit that was frustrating, I never stopped wanting to play. But I’ve kept some of the same behaviors, of taking every rejection as a referendum on my worth. I recommend using rejection as a learning experience. I won a contest writing about just that.

The more challenging kind of criticism is what I received when I took an eight-week writer’s workshop through CU’s Continuing Ed. The workshop leader, who is a tenured professor at CU, is someone my friend Peggy had worked with for two or three sessions, and she invited me to join her. I knew I was in trouble when she told the class, “I’m not in the business of telling you how to fix your writing. I’m in the business of telling you what’s wrong with your writing, and then it’s on you to go and fix it.”

Or not. Provided your confidence as a writer isn’t completely destroyed when she gets through with your writing. I volunteered to workshop a story I’d been working on the previous summer, and she proceeded to rip it to shreds, and by example essentially invited the rest of the class to do the same. Because that’s precisely how I felt that night. I walked back to my car in a state of shock. Looking back on it, I probably shouldn’t have been driving. I didn’t sleep well that night, wondering if I’d been wasting my life believing I had any writing talent whatsoever.

I wallowed like this for exactly twelve hours, and then I got angry. I take responsibility for any emotional overreaction on my part, but I wasn’t going to accept a teacher telling me my writing is “immoral.” If criticism feels like humiliation rather than a humbling, as I’ve described my yoga teacher training, jettison it. You don’t need criticism like that, that’s designed to make you doubt whether you have anything to say as a writer.

Make hypersensitivity your friend.

This is a good segway from criticism. Putting yourself out there strongly, whether it’s in your writing or expressing your ideas and yourself in person. Those of us in this room who are frequent writers no doubt know what I’m talking about. It can be hard on the feelings to put your ideas out there and have them be summarily shredded in subsequent letters from people who disagree with you.

But if we let our sensitivity to criticism, or attention of any kind, lead us, we’ll never publish anything. Put your sensitivity in service of your writing, and all the hundreds of observations and anecdotes you will need to shape your writing. The excerpt from Tinkers I read earlier is a perfect example of an author deploying sensitive observations to a passage of writing. He saw the lake and the sky, and he felt something about what he saw, and he was able to meld his vision and his feelings into something I think is stunning.

Hypersensitivity connotes a certain openness to things others may not be as open to, and that ability in itself is a valuable thing. It makes you an extraordinary guide, a guide with insight and something unique to share. Writing makes it even more shareable. So do it. Do it with the expectation that it will help someone else to feel something they may not have been aware of before. Do it with the expectation that others won’t get it. And when people don’t get something, they either ignore it, or they ridicule it, or they disagree with it. Do it anyway. When what you write or say elicits these kinds of reactions, know you’re onto something.

Learn the difference between observation and judgment.

Observations are going to give you more room to maneuver in your writing than judgments will. I think of observations like a window closing, and judgments like a window closing. I’ve nothing against closed windows. I rather like them in winter, when the idea is to keep the cold air out. But don’t limit yourself to living in a room where the windows are always closed.

Better than opening a window, go outside. I confess this works really well for me. I go out foraging for observations. One of my favorite places to be is at Long Draw Reservoir above the Poudre Canyon. The campground is at 10,000 feet, and being there just obliterates the separation between myself and creation. I can breathe up there. I can stand still and watch the storms come in, drop what they got and hustle along someplace else.

Now what if I were to go up there looking only for moose, which are plentiful up there, though with wildlife there are never any guarantees. Birds and squirrels and storms and mountains would hold little interest for me, because all I want to see are moose. Moose, moose, moose. That’s what I’ve got on my brain. I might feel myself getting disappointed, or even angry, that I still haven’t seen a moose. I might feel that they’re hiding from me, which they are. They know that hiding from the average person is in their best interest.

This makes me think of the time Don and I were in Yellowstone Park during the 1988 fires. We had stopped by the side of the road to look at a moose grazing and her calf nursing in a meadow less than a hundred yards away. As we sat there watching, a motor home pulled up beside us. The passenger window rolled down, a telephoto lens came out, and a few moments later, a voice said, “Let’s go. I can’t get a good shot.” Lens goes in, window rolls up.

Can’t get a good shot? Hello? They were literally superimposing a frame over a spontaneous moment. I wondered if they would remember the moose, or if they needed the photograph to remember. This epitomizes the limitations of judgment.

Of course, there’s a role for judgment. That’s what ends most stories or editorials or essays. There’s a point of view taken, and offered to anyone who will read. In the process of making a story, or a poem, or an essay, it’s good to begin with a hypothesis. As you flesh it out, it’s best to stay open to seeing what you’ll see and save the winnowing process for when you’ve had your fill. I think it’s like making a movie. You get as much footage as you can in the observation phase, and then during the judgment phase you sit down in an editing room with a panel of people and decide what stays and what goes. During that process, it’s likely that your original hypothesis has changed.

Care for yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Earlier I touched on the importance of keeping a sense of uselessness and purposelessness at bay, as you wait for publication. Writing two unpublished novels during my ten years as a stay-at-home mom was a blessing for me. Equally important were keeping my body, mind and spirit ship-shape. I did that in a variety of ways. Yoga, running, hiking, skiing, walking. Yoga is the linchpin for all of it. It’s why I’ve decided to become a teacher. It takes care of everything. I have been a member of First Congregational Church in Boulder for almost 17 years. There I was invited to participate in community-building activities and opportunities for spiritual growth that continue to this day.

You may already be doing many of these things. That’s great. Continue to experiment with whatever enhances your well-being.

Educate yourself about the craft of writing.
When I feel like I’ve hit a wall with my writing, I’ve taken a class or hired a coach, with mixed success. But I can say each experience has helped me progress as a writer and as a person. I’ve been a member of the Longmont Writer’s Club and participated in a couple of critique groups. I’ve read books on the art of writing. One of my special favorites is Brenda Ueland’s book If YouWant to Write. Ms. Ueland was one of this country’s finest writing teachers, and remains so, because her book is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. It’s so conversational, so encouraging, you feel as if she’s sitting beside you and talking to your personally about your work.

But I’ve gotten the most insight into the craft of writing from reading other authors. No one can be wrong about everything, so one of the best bits of advice the CU professor gave me was to read widely. Books will inform your own work in a way almost nothing else can.

Be content to make a contribution, not write the end-all, be-all on the subject.

Writers are a hypersensitive breed. Writers are bold enough to think that what they think, imagine and experience matters to anyone else. Humility might seem incompatible with this, but I believe it’s a necessary ingredient.

The yogis speak of stretching to the edge of the postures, wherever that may be given your current awareness and flexibility of your body today. None of the yoga postures can do everything, although a few of them come pretty damned close to stretching the body, mind and spirit in every possible way. But within those limitations, there is a lot of power. The same is true about writing, and writers. Don’t be afraid of the limits of your writing, but do write to the very edges of those limitations. Write to the edges of those pages All writing is part of the grand dialogue of human thought and experience and feeling. You have as much to offer as anyone to that dialogue. So if you don’t believe me, believe William Carlos Williams, who writes about this in his poem, “The Pink Locust.”

I’m persistent as the pink locust,
once admitted
to the garden,
you will not easily get rid of it.
Tear it from the ground,
if one hair-thin rootlet
it will come again.
It is
Flattering to think of myself
So. It is also laughable.
A modest flower,
Resembling a pink sweet-pea,
You cannot help
but admire it
until its habits
become known.
Are we not most of us
Like that? It would
Too much
If the public
Pried among the minutiae
Of our private affairs.
That we have anything to hide
But could they
stand it? Of course
the world would be gratified
to find out
what fools we have made of ourselves.
The question is,
Would they
Be generous with us—
As we have been
With others? It is,
As I say,
A flower
Incredibly resilient
Under attack!
Neglect it
And it will grow into a tree.
I wish I could so think of myself
And of what
Is to become of me.
The poet himself,
What does he think of himself
Facing his world?
It will not do to say,
As he is inclined to say:
Not much. The poem
Would be in that betrayed.
He might as well answer—
“a rose is a rose
Is a rose” and let it go at that.
A rose is a rose
And the poem equals it
If it be well made.
The poet
Cannot slight himself
Without slighting
His poem—
Which would be
Life offers
No greater reward.
And so,
Like this flower,
I persist—
For what there may be in it.
I am not,
I know,
In the galaxy of poets
A rose
But who,
Among the rest,
Will deny me
My place.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Here's what someone's husband emailed me from Italy after reading my blog post about Ahnold's travails:

"I think you give guys too much credit.  When they are thinking with the big guy, there is no
guilt or shame. ;-)"

Didn't Lance Armstrong warn guys over 30 NOT to use emoticons? ;) And yeah, maybe there's no guilt or shame during and immediately afterward, but what about when it's Father's Day unexpectedly? Don't you think they'd have some regrets?

"Also, what about these women teachers who are caught having sex with students?  You should include them in your list of naughties - it's not just men."

Uh, huh. YOU include women who sleep with their students on your list of naughties. Did you click on the NPR link on my last blog post? There was a mention of an Irish MP, Iris Robinson, who was found out to be boinking a 19-year-old. (What an unfortunate, unfortunate name for a political fornicator, by the way.) I believe incidents like these are comparatively rare because unlike our Irish Mrs. Robinson, who is past menopause, women can get pregnant and they can't hide a goddamned thing!

"But your overall point is good. There's lots of needless pain and suffering that comes from these

Thank you to the critic whose head rests on the pillow beside me.

The Power of Recklessness

A high school classmate's Facebook status read simply, "Arnold You are a jackass."

That could have beautifully summed up any sentiment anyone outside the Schwarzenegger-Shriver family is allowed to have. This morning I made the mistake of reading an AP account of the story. I also dipped into an NPR analysis of politicians and affairs, which was disappointingly cliched. I never ever want to hear another news analyst describe power as an aphrodisiac.

It's about power, all right, but it's also about recklessness. Ahnold is in the same club as John Edwards, Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant and possibly IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kohn. Recklessness usually describes someone who's completely out of control. Perhaps the only thing out of these guys' control is their sex drives. They were willing to risk everything, even their self-respect, on sex. It's possible these guys get off on being naughty boys, and their wickedness is even more scintillating because they get away with it for so long, maybe even forever. Getting away with it feeds their sense of their power and reinforces the idea that they're a law unto themselves. That they're able to compel the silence of those who know about it is another sign of their power.

As someone who has had my fair share of doubt and pain, it's hard for me to imagine that these guys didn't occasionally suffer through sleepless nights, wondering what would happen when their covers blew. They had to have known that their wives or girlfriends, and the public who thinks they know them, were not going to take kindly to betrayal of this magnitude. They must have thought they could control it forever.

I almost wish they had. The suffering this has created for everyone involved is unspeakable. I'm thinking particularly of the son Schwarzenegger bore with a staff member. All of Arnold's money and power can't buy that boy the trust of his parents.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The path of sanity and openness

"I thought we were better than that."

So said a co-worker, after I asked her about her response to Osama bin Laden's death. We were both feeling queasy about the World Cup-type celebrations of a human being's death--even if that human being is not only responsible for the deaths of thousands he called infidel, but also unrepentant.

I don't think we're better than that. I do think there's a very human need to find closure- to the shock and pain and grief of 9/11, of two endless wars, of a floundering world economy--wherever we can. I'm thinking about that photograph of the sailor and a nurse passionately kissing in Times Square on V-J day in 1945. That was the end to a war that had gone on too long and claimed so many lives. Their joy at having the rest of their lives ahead of them is palpable. Osama's death might just be the end of a life that must have been devoid of joy. Not the end of a movement, or of violence.

For many who were directly affected by 9/11, Osama's death is something to celebrate. On the front page of our community's local newspaper, there was a photo of a young soldier who had lost his eye in Iraq. Can anyone truly blame him for being happy about the death of someone whose actions declared war on our country? Can anyone blame 9/11 survivors?

Osama clearly hated life. He was exiled from his own country. After 9/11 he was forced into hiding, basically imprisoning himself in maximum security. What kind of life could he have lived under these conditions?

I do think we can be better than this. And it's up to those of us who are committed to what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls the path of sanity and openness to live like we mean it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of Taxes and Pinatas

After watching business at Cheese Importers come out of the post-Christmas doldrums, it fell off again during the first two weeks in April. When I mentioned it to my boss, she said, "Oh, business always falls off in April because it's tax time. Nobody knows how much money they'll have until it's over."

Because my husband finishes our return by no later than mid-February, we always know what our tax bill is well before April 15. I get why so many people procrastinate. No one likes paying bills, even if it's in the service of the good things in life, like paying off credit card receipts from a vacation, for keeping your home at a comfortable temperature all year around or for your childrens' education.

No bill has been more demonized than income taxes, which roughly 40 percent of Americans polled believe primarily goes to fund waste, fraud and abuse. And if we could just get rid of all that waste, fraud and abuse, why, we'd be living in an absolute Shangri-La, where taxes are low and maybe even non-existent and wealthy people finally feel secure enough to invest in hiring people again.

Well, taxes for the wealthy are lower as a percentage of income, and yet they still don't feel secure, according to a Boston College professor's study of people with fortunes of more than $25 million. And if you clicked on the waste, fraud and abuse link above, you'll see that while there is always room to reduce waste, fraud and abuse, its eradication would amount to about $220 billion. That's a nice chunk of change. But it doesn't come close to putting a dent in the U.S. national debt.

Let me just say I'd do my very best to live on $25 million. Really. I'll blog about my struggles as a newly-enriched person. Any super-wealthy people who want to ease the pain of having too much wealth and not enough security can contact me here.

The insecurity described in Professor Paul Schervish's study makes me think of the pinata parties that were a mainstay of my youth in California. It was always the biggest and strongest and most aggressive kid who broke the pinata open, and the other big, strong, aggressive kids in the crowd who were the first to throw themselves on top of the candy and toys. The rest of us grabbed a few pieces and ran off with them before the kids on the ground noticed. I doubt those kids particularly enjoyed the treats. Maybe that's because they were so busy making sure no one else got much. It also didn't endear them to those of us who had the quaint idea that this was a party and everyone would get their fair share.

Maybe this is where insecurity creeps in. People with this many resources can fool themselves for only so long that they don't care about those of us with less. A few of the worst of them may actually enjoy the resentment they inspire. Think Leona Helmsley. This may be me being quaint again, but I think most people can only hide behind their financial and emotional fortresses for so long.

Life is an adventure, and as such, it can never be secure. I suspect Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali might know something about this.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Small Island

For such a small island, Japan has had a lot of problems.

Usually I'm an eager consumer of news. But the earthquake, tsunami and threat of nuclear meltdown make me want to turn off the radio and skip the newspaper coverage. It's what I did during 9/11. Though I missed the video of human beings throwing themselves out of burning buildings, I watched the towers of the World Trade Centers crumple, almost as if it had been planned, over and over again. Too many times. For more than a year afterward, I simply went on overload and shut off all news.

This time I'm doing it differently. I'm not turning away, because the human beings in Japan who are living a nightmare that hasn't ended yet need those of us who are are luxuriating in uninterrupted daily routines to hang in there with them. To know some of what's happening without experiencing it firsthand, and hold them in prayer. And to give generously to their relief effort.

During lovingkindness meditation, you begin by repeating the phrases, "May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I be happy, May I live in ease." Then you extend it to a neutral person, like the mail delivery person or the handsome man who lives a few blocks away and walks his golden retriever past your house every morning (although it's possible I'm not so very neutral about him after all). Next you extend lovingkindness to someone you admire, like a beloved yoga teacher, or your spouse, or a co-worker whose health has taken a ruinous turn. This last one I have the hardest time with--you say these words for someone you don't admire. Sarah Palin leaps to mind every time. But I'm doing it.

Since the earthquake, I've been especially struck by the completely lack of safety and ease the people affected by these catastrophes are experiencing. I feel these phrases are futile, and maybe even Marie Antoinette-ish, given their circumstances. The best I can say is that I'm more grateful than ever for the safety and ease in my life.

Some of the news focuses on the whammy Japan's economy, and possibly the world's, is facing. Others report on how nuclear meltdown will affect Japan's fisheries, and of course, how nuclear fallout does not honor borders. In case we didn't get it, we're all interconnected, folks.

We all live on a small island. Let's be precious to each other.

Monday, February 28, 2011

In the Black

My best ideas often come to me when I'm doing something mundane, usually washing dishes, taking a shower or on a run. Last night when Don and I were washing the dishes after the Academy Awards, we were talking about the budget crises across the country, when a possible solution came to me.

Nonfinancial Fortune 500 companies that are sitting on $1.8 trillion could lend to the states. No handouts, but a business relationship. Keep people employed, and eventually the budget crises will be resolved, allowing these companies to be repaid in due time, even earning a profit. Sounds like the patriotic thing to do.

I can already hear the familiar refrain: "But that would be socialism." So tell me, how well are those companies going to fare if hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of state employees are laid off because their states are bankrupt? Unemployed people aren't buying GE refrigerators or smartphones--they're living off the government dole, they're cancelling cable, eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and doing whatever they need to do to make sure the bank doesn't foreclose on their houses--those who manage to keep their payments current under these circumstances. How's it going to prosper major corporations if elementary-school students are stuck in classes of 40 or more because a couple hundred or even a couple of thousand teachers in their districts were laid off?

Our country has asked thousands of people to defend our interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have died or been severely wounded. If we can ask soldiers to spill blood, it's not too much to ask corporations to spill their black ink.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I don't have any problems

I started writing this blog to talk about worth and worthiness, for what my two cents on the subject of worth is worth. I figure I'm uniquely qualified to write about it because I spent most of my life not feeling like I was worth much. I don't write this to get anyone to feel sorry for me, or to be curious about why. I write to get as close to telling the truth from where I stand as I can. Starting with myself and my one wild and precious life seems as good a place as any. If you've been reading The Low Three Figures, you'll have some idea why. Hell, if you're human, you'll have some idea why most of us walk around feeling unvalued.

I was listening to the program "Outlook" on the BBC this morning and heard Liz Murray's story. Hence, the title of this post. I don't have any problems. She has written Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard. It's already on my list of books to read. She had to teach herself how to ask for what she needed, which for her began with wanting a high school education. After knocking on a lot of doors, she was finally accepted into a high school in Manhattan. That led to her being one of six socially disadvantaged kids who got scholarships to Harvard from the New York Times.

But what if you don't know what to ask for? What if you've given up asking for what you want, in the face of so many rejections? What kept Liz going?

I have the idea that she kept going because she was becoming someone who would teach others how to identify what they have to offer, what training they need to hone their natural skills, and then to gather the resources they need going forward. That is precisely what Ms. Murray is doing with Manifest Living, the organization she's created.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Open Letter to Sarah Palin

Dear Governor Palin,

I just watched your conversation with Sean Hannity, and I want to tell you as one mother to another that I, as one of the wee-wee liberals you disdain, am not telling you to shut up. I am asking you to turn down the volume.

I've noticed that you and I have something in common--a love of referencing folksy, personal stories. So let's pretend we're neighbors, and not neighbors like that creepy so-called journalist who rented that house next door to yours last summer and then pretended like he didn't do it to irritate you. What if you and your family were playing your music too loud after midnight, and I called to ask you to turn it down? How would you respond?

I hope you wouldn't respond by telling me that's too bad, but you have the right to play your music as loud as you want, any time of the day or night, and that as a matter of fact, you're going to turn it up louder, because darn it, this is America, where people have gone to war and died to earn the right for the rest of us to do what we want when we want to. Because I actually had a neighbor tell me that when I so rudely interrupted his loud hot-tub party at one a.m. to ask him to quiet down. No matter that he and his friends had so rudely interrupted my sleep during my sixth month of pregnancy. Somehow he turned it into that I was raining on his parade.

"Tell that to the police when they arrive," I said, turning toward my house to make good on my promise.

Here's another story I think you'll relate to, as a hockey mom: At a soccer match for second-grade boys, I asked a parent who kept walking in front of me as I sat on the sidelines to please not walk in front of me during the game. Of course this begged the question, why wasn't he sitting in a chair like all the other spectating parents were?

He got so angry so instantly I was afraid he was going to hit me. His responses are in quotes, mine (real and imagined, I'll let you make the call) in parentheses. "Who are you to ask me to stop?" (Uh, another parent watching my son's match.) And "Everyone knows our team always sits on this side of the field." (How would I know that? I've never laid eyes on you before in my life.) And my personal favorite: "You could have asked nicely." (I did. I was very direct, and as polite as I could manage, given that your pacing was ruining my view of my son's game. Maybe next time I'll say, "Can you please sit down and shut up, asshole?")

But wait, that would just be throwing fat on the flame. I wouldn't want to be irresponsible or anything with that hard-won right to free speech.

I've learned when people are determined to be aggressive, they will resist all efforts to restrain them in any way. It sounds to me like that's where you're coming from, Governor.

No one knows better than me how tough it is to practice what you preach. But if you want the right to express yourself freely, it works both ways. You'll have to expect some sassy responses from wee wee liberals, the lamestream media and anyone whose opinions differ from yours. That's how I understand America's commitment to free speech.

So are we going to be happy neighbors, or are we going to be at odds?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Adults, please

Just listened to Neal Conan's program, Talk of the Nation, on National Public Radio. Neal devoted the first part of the show to the Tucson shootings. One of his guests was Randy Graf, a former Arizona state house rep and Giffords' Republican opponent in 2006. Mr. Graf spoke of how politics is a tough business; how Sheriff Clarence Dupnik stepped over the line when he described Arizona as a focal point for overheated rhetoric and bigotry; and the NRA platitude, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Yes, politics is a tough business. Things are said. Policies are going to offend at least half the electorate. I hope Mr. Graf isn't lumping the toughness of politics in with assassination, attempted or otherwise. 'Cause it sure sounds like it.

Again, at least half the electorate agrees that political rhetoric is overheated. Sheriff Dupnik is a law enforcement officer. That he made these remarks after a shooting rampage seems perfectly appropriate to me. And it's not like overblown rhetoric creating a hostile environment is a new idea--people have been talking about cooling it down for a long, long while. Why is it so outrageous to say it after a shooting? Does it mean that Mr. Graf and others want to keep open the option of throwing rhetorical flames? Is what Sheriff Dupnik said more outrageous than the conditions leading up to the shootings, or the shootings themselves? As in when the governor of Arizona makes the statement that many headless bodies have been found in the Arizona desert and which she later has to retract?

And as for guns killing people--ay, yay, yay. I'll quote a caller to TOTN, who said in response to Mr. Graf's recitation, "Try telling that to the mother of the nine-year-old girl."

Music Man

I'm almost finished reading Keith Richards' autobiography Life. It confirms almost everything that I knew about him--that he's talented, funny, pugnacious, curious, generous, chock full of joie de vivre, and intelligent. This last trait cuts both ways. As he writes, "Like all geniuses, [the producer Rob Fraboni] can be a pain in the arse, but it goes with badge."

Right back atcha, Keith.

I love this man enough to hang in even when he gives what I expect will be a geeky Keef guitar clinic early in the book. I was tempted to skip it altogether and get to the juicy bits about Anita and Brian and Mick and the drugs. But I'll be damned if I didn't keep reading because he explained it in a way I could understood, that I cared about, and that gave me insight into his skill as a maker of music. The guy hears sounds in his head--it might be harpsichord or taiko drums--and translates those sounds onto the strings of his guitars.

When he wrote that feminists hate the Stones, adding "Where would they be without us?" I got defensive. I consider myself a feminist who is also a big fan of the Stones, and Keith in particular. What's wrong with supporting equal rights for women? I sat with his question for a little while. Of course he's sort of pulling our leg--sort of. But he's also right. Where would the women's movement be without fighting against the sentiments expressed in "Under My Thumb"? While I'm not gonna thank the Stones for that, I'm also not going to pretend that the Stones invented it. Or that we'd all be in Paradise if sexism never existed.

In almost all cases, Keith is characteristically direct about his memories and his feelings. Though the journalist James Fox co-wrote Life, it is Keith's voice that blazes forth. Except in one instance, when he recalls his infant son Tara's death. It felt to me that Keith hid behind a curtain (for one of the few times in his life) and let Fox or someone else write it. Check it out for yourself. It's on page 386.

I didn't buy his rationalization about driving under the influence, about the time he crashed his Bentley with eight people inside, including his seven-year-old son. It was along the lines of what the Rain Man said, "I'm an excellent driver." And "Nobody got hurt." Except that his son recalls a bloody handprint he'd left on the dashboard that remained there for decades after. The best you can say about Keith's recollection of the crash, or his recounting of the obsession for arranging fixes, is that he didn't try to hide anything. Keith's addictions were clearly in control.

That's really no surprise. When you're as gifted a person as Keith Richards is, it's easy to believe you're in control. Maybe even that you're a god, or a damned good rival for God Himself. After all, Keith makes sounds people haven't heard before. He can go into a studio and make recordings that millions of people will pay good money to listen to

I'm one fan who's glad he kicked the most lethal addiction and has lived to pursue the real fascination of his life.