Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nomadic California Fall

Ruby with her great granddaughter.
It's funny how our nomadic schedule falls together like puzzle pieces.

We accepted a housesit for September in L.A. intending to drive down to Baja afterward. But then I was asked to lead a writing workshop in Northern California in October. And we were invited to Dave's nephew's wedding. Soon we scored a housesit in Alameda. Then we were offered housesits in Santa Cruz for November and Tahoe for December. Clearly, California was calling to us to hang out longer.

One of the great pleasures of October was spending time with family and friends. We were able to visit my 92-year-old Aunt Ruby in the Sacramento. She played honkey tonk on the piano and we hung out with my cousins. Then we went to the wedding in Marin...

Regina and James
 Which also meant hanging out with a bunch of Dave's kin.
With Dave's sister and bro-in-law.
Next we drove east, to Sonora, where I was set to lead a workshop called "How to Believe in Your Writing." After more than two years away from teaching, I was excited and a little unnerved.

The energy in the room was electric. Many of the participants said they felt inspired and had breakthroughs on their projects. My longtime friend Dawn showed up with her mom. Two participants were teenagers, and several were in their sixties and seventies.

My friend and writing compatriot, Patricia, and her partner Cindy hosted us--and introduced us to their writing community.

Dinner with writers
I was also able to spend time with my sister and a group of her awesome women friends who had read my book, Call It Wonder and invited me to meet with their book group. It's wonderful and surreal to talk to people about the book. I'm especially touched when they say it inspired them or prompted them to reflect on their own life paths.

Call It Wonder-ful!
We couldn't be that close to Yosemite and not pay a visit. So after Sonora, Dave and I spent the night at the utterly charming Evergreen Lodge ...

...and hiked to a magical waterfall.

One of California fall's jewel-like days.

Next we scooted west to get to Alameda for our house (and cat) sit.

Uma, our charge.
Dave and I grew up in California and have lived a lot of years in the Bay Area--but Alameda was one place we didn't know much about. The site of a now-closed naval based, Alameda is an island tucked next to Oakland.

You can take a ferry from Alameda to San Francisco.
Our apartment for ten days was in the charming downtown, situated on a main street above a taqueria. Within steps were innumerable restaurants and an old, restored movie theater.

We have friends who live in Alameda we were able to visit. In the past few years, we've hung out with our friend Mark in Yellowstone, Zion National Park, and Tahoe. Finally, we were on his turf. He was our bike tour guide, a great way to explore this flat terrain.

Checking out the neighborhoods.

Enjoying a waterfront cruise.
We also met up with Kathleen, an old high school buddy. She took us to Rock Wall Winery, a fantastic waterfront venue with excellent food. As the sun set, the lights of San Francisco twinkled across the bay.
Kathleen, her friend Amy, and me
I hadn't seen her kids in few years. They had transformed into bigger human beings with exceptional talents.
The old naval airbase takes up about one third of Alameda's land. A number of ships are still docked there, including the USS Hornet, which is open for tours.

Some of the buildings are being used in  varying ways. One is Kathleen's impressive gym--a huge space with, among other things, a full-size indoor soccer field. She took me to her yoga class, followed by a spinning class--an Amazonian workout that was fun and intense.

When we started housesitting a year ago, we had no idea that it would provide us opportunities to explore old/new terrain and window-in on the lives of people we love. Life on the road continues to surprise and delight.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep."

John Brantingham with Archie Goodboy
The truth is, as human beings we all suffer. But suffering is not the only wellspring of creativity. It's possible to be happy and be a writer, as John Brantingham and I discuss in the latest installment of my Books That Inspire series:

You told me that you hope your book The Green of Sunset offers people a way to focus on small, seemingly unimportant things to help them through difficult times. Can you say more about why you think poetry has the capacity to heal?

So much of what hurts people is self-inflicted. The way we see the world creates our reality. Poetry and the arts in general give us a way to understand the world. The arts are a global conversation, and much of that is a discussion that helps us through the difficult times.

When I was younger, I read novels constantly, and they helped me. One year, when I was going through religious questioning, I read nothing but Brian Moore and Graham Greene, and the two of them let me know that other people had the same kinds of questions that I had, and that they were important questions. At the very least, poetry lets us know that we’re not alone.

There are times in your life when a book, movie, or painting hits you just at the moment when you need it, and in a flash you understand, and that artistic moment stays with you and drives you. Ted Kooser does that to me a lot. Tolkien did that for me when I was a kid. I was hard of hearing and lonely then, and Tolkien gave me a world beyond myself.

And I think that most of the time, it does more than that. It gives us multiple perspectives on the world’s chaos, and I always want my poetry to be healing in some way. It needs to affirm hope and courage above all other things. Art can do that too.

My wife, who is an artist, led me there and I can see the larger conversation of the arts now. It’s beautiful if you follow the right artists. The cynicism and negativity that often drags people down is easy and childish. If people hit my poetry at the right moment, I want them to see the beautiful possibility that there is for them.

Even if you don't normally read poetry, I bet you'll like this book.

In the title poem of The Green of Sunset, you write: "I hope you realize bitterness comes only from moments that stick out in our minds like pustules on a tongue. We chew on them, given them an importance they don't have to have." Do you think being bitter is a choice? Can you say more about how this idea might be important to you?
There are people out there who have been through a great deal, and it’s hard to fault them for bitterness, but yes, to some degree I do [think it's a choice], at least it is for me. I wrote this book at a very difficult time in my life. We’d wanted to adopt a child and had gotten to know the mother very well, but it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. In part it was written for me to remind me that I need to focus on what is beautiful in life.
I’d been drinking pretty hard, often a fifth of bourbon in an evening, and had put myself into a kind of spiral. I realized that the way out for me was through the arts and by not focusing on those things that depressed me. I started volunteering and working with other people. I started writing more and reading more. I haven’t ever been to therapy, and I won’t as long as this is working for me.
We didn’t need all of the big things as long as we had all of those little things. We had daily art and long walks and the joy of seeing people doing amazing things. There is so much profound joy in the world, I knew that we shouldn’t focus on those couple of moments that had been terrible.
The second key to this was being with someone all the time who I feel I can trust and talk to. I don’t know how far the arts would go to keeping me out of my head if I weren’t with Annie. She helps me and I help her to focus on that which is larger than we are. I don’t think people need to be with a husband or wife for this, just around other people.

The depressed, suicidal writer is fetishized in much of literary history. Do you think we must suffer in order to write well? How do you think such a view of the artist affects you as a writer--and your students?

It’s difficult to write about writers and poets working on craft. It’s not dramatic, and therefore, bad writing. The alternative then is to write about those things in their lives that make them interesting on a human level. It’s much easier in a class about Hemingway to talk about his suicide or his alcohol abuse. I’m saying this as someone who teaches literature, and I have found myself focusing on those things, which is a mistake that I’ve made in my teaching career.

The truth is that Hemingway did abuse alcohol and he did kill himself, but a lot of people have done that. No one would say that good bridge engineers really should drink and be depressed or they wouldn’t be in the right headspace to construct great bridges, but there aren’t many good movies about bridge engineers. If there were, it would be hard to make them because the internal life just doesn’t translate well into movies, stories, or biographies.

So, I think “fetishized” is right. It’s obsessive and irrational. Yes, a lot of writers have been suicidal because a lot people have been suicidal. The two things do not correspond. That kind of view affected me a lot. I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep. What a ridiculous thought.

I’ve had to talk to students about alcohol and drug use. I don’t think that they should stay away from alcohol necessarily, but if they think drinking and drugging is going to make them good writers they’re absolutely in for some trouble. They’re going to stop writing pretty soon.

The relationship of the arts to depression is this: the arts can heal depression to some degree for some people. Of course, I don’t mean clinical depression. However, people absolutely do not need to be depressed to create art.


I love the rhythm of your writing, the way it showcases how the mind wanders and connects. Because you use common vernacular, I'd call your style an accessible version of stream-of-consciousness. Have you always written this way, more or less, or has this style developed over time? What has influenced your progression as a writer? (I feel Walt Whitman in your you?)

I’m someone who believes very much in form, so much so that I wrote a textbook about it, The Gift of Form. The idea behind that book was that each form gives the poet something different, and if you approach formed poetry differently than you do free verse, you will have a unique experience but still gain something from the poetry. The formal poet should stay focused on the line not thinking about the ending of poem and trusting that the form will draw out ideas rather than starting with the idea and trying to force it into the form.

Anyway, that was the idea I had with these poems. Because of the way I was feeling, scattered and unfocused and confused about what the point of my life was, I turned to prose poetry, which focuses on the poetic sentence. It can go on and on and allows a kind of outpouring of emotion.

You flatter me with Walt Whitman. Yeah, he’s a big influence. The most direct influence for this collection was Gary Young, who is my favorite prose poetry writer. I read his collections over and over while writing. Then, there are a ton of others -- Thomas Lux, Tony Barnstone, Gerry Locklin, Sharon Olds, Donna Hilbert, to name a few.

I try to have a completely different style for each collection to capture the meaning and message of the poems and my mood. I just released Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art with a friend, and I often used a sonnet form. Other times, I’d use single stressed lines to help mute the tone of the poem.

What would you tell your younger self?

I’d tell him to slow down and not work so damn much. I’d tell him to quit his job selling clothing and live without money for a while so he could focus on writing. Also, I’d tell him that all of those feelings of self-loathing are ridiculous. He’s all right.

I’d tell him to get married sooner, to find a way to do that through writing. I’d tell him to read more. I’d tell him to care for his friends more and to listen to jazz.

I’d tell him to take Annie to Europe and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take Annie to the mountains and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take that internship at that magazine that he passed up and to work at Mt. San Antonio College because he’d really love the people there.

I’d tell him to watch as many movies as he can and subscribe to museums so he can write there. Finally, I’d tell him to find a way to own as many dogs as he can. There’s no joy in this world like a dog’s joy.
What else would you like to add?

For the last two years, Annie and I have been volunteering at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, teaching poetry and art to people in week-long sessions. We arrange it so the students are volunteers and as long as they agree to donate at least one piece of art or poetry, the week and park entrance is free. Some weeks, we backpack. Other weeks, we stay in the front country and work. In any case, it’s an amazing adventure, and anyone reading this can join us. The connection to nature and art is unlike anything you’ve experienced, and we have scientists along to give us insight into what we’re seeing. Please contact me for more information on that, or friend me on Facebook.

John Brantingham is the author of books of several books of fiction and poetry--as well as hundreds of poems, stories and essays. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College and lives in Seal Beach. He is currently working on a collection of flash fiction pieces with Grant Hier, meant to be the entire history of California from 10,000 BCE until now. He's also writing a poetry collection that explores the natural history of California focusing mostly on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.Visit his website here, and friend him on Facebook here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Hundred Beds

Dave with our friends' kids on our way back to Nor Cal after a month in L.A.
I wonder how many beds we've slept in since June 1, 2013 when we left our house, our town, and our jobs to live a traveling life?

Maybe a hundred?

A friend asked me the other day if I'm tired of moving around so much.

For the most part, no. Usually when it's time to go, I get excited about our next move--while simultaneously getting a little nostalgic about leaving critters we've spent time with on housesits. (Packing and repacking can get a little tedious, but we're pretty damn efficient at it by this point.)

Besides the fact that I was born to run, I'm okay with our lifestyle because we've spent long periods of time in some places (six months in Mexico, four in Tahoe, a month-and-a-half in Australia and India and Chicago and Port Townsend, and a month in L.A.). Also, there's the constancy of my writing and writing coaching wherever we go. And the knowledge that next year, we will be returning to Mexico for another six months.

A walk in San Rafael with Pat and Sherlock.

This month is unusual. It's involving a lot more short spurts: a weekend in San Rafael, two weeks in San Jose, a night in Sacramento to visit my 92-year-old, four nights in Sonora where I will be doing several book events, a night in Yosemite, and ten days of housesitting in Alameda.

Because we are in the Bay Area, I was able to go meet Judy, the Alameda woman we are housesitting for starting next week--to get the keys and meet her cat. And here's where the magic comes in. She invited six of her friends over to meet me.

Her adorable apartment was filled with food and drink...and these women! Creative, fascinating people: a pastry chef and chef instructor, a wine expert (who is going to France to be educated in champagnes), a production editor at Pixar, a former restaurant owner, a jewelry designer, a young woman who educated us about hackathons and who recently launched a technology startup. I told her that's my husband's line of work--so she's going to come over next week to talk to him.

We caught the Blue Angels over the Golden Gate Bridge.
These women love to travel and many are interested in living in alternative ways. I wasn't the only one Judy met through a housesitting website; one woman housesat for her before and is considering a lifestyle of travel and housesitting. So we all had a lot to talk about.

Judy had asked me to share a little about my book. After I did, one woman approached me to tell me that, like me, her daughter had a brain tumor. Her daughter is 17. She wants us to meet. I'm honored...and looking forward to it.

The day felt like a magical convening of things I love: creativity, travel, soul-connection. I told Judy it feels like we knew each other in a past life.

It's true: wherever you focus your time, energy, and thoughts, things blossom. If a hundred beds led to this, bring on a hundred more.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Radical Gratitude

As a child, Andrew Bienkowski was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. The struggle to survive was so extreme that Andrew's grandfather stopped eating so his grandchildren wouldn't starve. How is it that someone could undergo such a horrific experience and not become angry or bitter but instead espouse a loving, giving, positive attitude?

This was the first question I asked Mary Akers in the current installment of my Books That Inspire series. Akers co-authored Bienkowski's book, One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others.

This book is essentially a memoir of Andrew Bienkowski who, as a five-year-old, was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. Why is it, do you think, that Andrew didn't sour toward life?

I think a lot of it had to do with his family. Andy would tell you that, too. They worked hard to find the good in the direst of circumstances, kept a strong faith, loved one another, and never gave up. Sounds like a pretty great combination to me. I think one of the other big factors is that they talked about what they were going through—before, during, and after—and didn’t keep things bottled up from shame or anger.

His grandmother was the storyteller and she not only kept alive the memories of his grandfather and their old life in Poland, but she helped them interpret the stories of Siberia as they lived them. A person can take any incident and focus on particular details that will support it as being tragic or hopeful. The family stories he was told always tended toward hopeful.

After writing this book, Andy came up with an interesting theory that I like a lot. He sums it up in one sentence: What you choose to remember, and how you choose to interpret what you remember, determines who you are.

You co-wrote the book with Andrew. What was that experience like?

It was great. He is every bit as warm and encouraging and thoughtful in person as he comes across in the book. In the beginning, I was actually quite nervous about depicting his life story and then handing it to him and essentially saying, “So, what do you think?” Can you imagine doing that for someone you’ve only just met? I had a lot of trepidation, but he was always really positive about the results.

The one time when I didn’t get his mother’s voice right in a chapter, he came to my house and brought me a bunch of old pictures and some old letters and newspaper clippings and we just sat and talked about her. She was the one I’d had the most trouble “connecting” with initially, but after I thought about the fact that she was a mother of two young children, watching her father starve to death so her children could live, her dilemma and motivation hit me hard. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.

I say the book is "essentially" a memoir, but it's eclectic and not easy to categorize. It also has components of an inspirational self-help book--and I see on the back, the publisher deems it "personal growth" and "psychology." You call it your "changeling child." Why did you and Andrew decide to approach the book in this way--and what were the benefits and challenges?

Well, we both always knew we wanted the book to be accessible and readable as a story, but also contain good, solid advice, in the same way that a parable teaches a lesson in the guise of a story. It’s also similar to how Andy worked with patients during his years as a practicing psychotherapist. Never underestimate the power of a good story to hold important details in the mind. Just ask any teacher, politician, or preacher.

Also, I would say that Andy and I are very similar in one way: We have wide-ranging interests, and friends all over the spectrum (race, gender, socioeconomics, etc.), so as people we don’t really fit into any definable category. We’ve both been a lot of different things in our lives, lived a lot of different places, and that all combines to make life and storytelling so much more interesting.

So, yes, this book has many aspects—it’s inspirational, it’s a memoir, it’s a little known part of World War Two history, it’s got a self-help angle, and it’s about human psychology. That’s what makes it interesting to read, but also what has been a real bear for us in getting it out into the world. Editors and publishers and librarians? They really like to know where a book “fits.” They need to know how to shelve it, market it, and sell it. And it’s difficult to do that when the book has so many different aspects. What is it? What do we call it? Where do we stock it? These are all important questions that affect which consumers ever even see the book. That has hurt us in some ways, because it is so much more than a psychology book or a self-help book.

Mary and Andy

Were you changed as a result of working on this project? If so, in what ways?

Yes. For starters, I didn’t know anything about the Polish Holocaust—it was never taught to me in school. I had no clue that more than a million Poles had been deported to Siberia left to starve, freeze to death, or die of illness. So there’s that—a whole perspective shift, there. But really, what affected us both, at about the same time post-publication, was the idea that we had written a book telling people how important it is to be grateful for bad things, to be mindful, to be good listeners, to be kind—and that simple fact shone a light on both our lives. Were we living what we had written? Were we qualified to give advice to others when we both still had work to do to become our best selves? It was very humbling.

I love the idea of "radical gratitude." Andrew believes it has the power to help "dissatisfied and restless people" learn to live better lives. What, to you, is radical gratitude--and do you practice it?

Radical Gratitude at its core is about being grateful for bad things that happen to you because those experiences make you stronger, more resilient, wiser, and more empathetic to the struggles of others. I absolutely do practice it. I live by it. I didn’t have the words for it before meeting Andy, but it’s always been at the core of who I am—looking for that silver lining, taking the lesson and absorbing it, recalibrating, making improvements and moving forward. I refuse to believe that there can’t be something good to come out of every heartbreak, loss, or physical suffering. I don’t think I could go on without that belief to sustain me through difficult times. So that aspect of Andy’s book spoke to me from day one. We were both very much simpatico in that regard.

Andrew says that worrying intensifies tension, anxiety, stress, and negativity. He recommends that instead of worrying, we "visualize good things happening in the future." Do you do this? Do you have tips for anyone who might like to orient themselves toward a positive vision of the future?

Well, I try very hard to do this. This one doesn’t come as naturally to me. I fret. I agonize. I wallow. Even as I know it is a ridiculous waste of time and mental energy. The best thing I can say is that I am trying. Living in the moment helps. Unless you’re bleeding, vomiting, or on fire, there really isn’t much to worry about in the present moment. And similar to that idea of slanting the story one way or another, if we’re going to expend the energy thinking about the future or the past, why not expend it envisioning or remembering a positive outcome? I have a long way to go, but I will say this: I get a little bit better at it every day.

In regards to the subtitle of this book, what do you think are the one or two key ways we can find ourselves by helping others?

I would say by listening and being kind. Both of those actions help us to be our best selves while also helping others in the process.

Mary Akers is also the author of two books of short fiction. Raised in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, she currently lives in western New York.  Andrew Bienkowski is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in the Korean War. He has worked as a psychologist for 40 years. He lives near Buffalo, New York. Mary and Andrew are working on a new book about aging and wisdom and not taking oneself too seriously.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

L.A. and the Mysteries

We've been to L.A. a lot. But not this L.A.
For almost a month now, we've enjoyed a housesit in Rancho Palos Verdes, a suburb in the hills above the Pacific. The house is on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

Amazing sunsets every night.
Usually when we come to So Cal we stay with friends and hang out in their neighborhoods. But on a housesit last year in West Hollywood, and this one, we've been able to explore pockets of L.A. we barely knew existed. And our friends have been coming to us.

Dave and Debbi hiking down the nearby coastal trail.

Brent and Jude jamming.

The Canon family, with smiley Miles.

Biking Santa Monica with the Kostenuiks, who met us half-way.
 In addition to hanging out with Kozmo and Kalvin...

  ...we've done a lot of outdoor stuff.
R.A.T. Beach (Right After Torrance)
We enjoyed a day at R.A.T. beach. We loved hiking down the steep cliffs to Abalone Cove (an ecological reserve), where at low tide you can check out tide pools. Several times we hiked the ocean trails near Trump National Golf Course, where public access to the bluffs has been preserved. And we rode our bikes along the strand from Redondo Beach to El Segundo--a wonderful multi-use path that takes you along the ocean for miles. We fell in love with Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, two communities with seaside charm.
The Strand

Yesterday added an exclamation point to the sentence, "September was a great month!" My best friend since high school threw me an incredible book reading, a celebration of Call It Wonder. The turnout was fantastic, and the audience very engaged.

Shadowed by a picture of Nancy and me taken 35 years ago (with Norma).
 That was my first of other upcoming events, including:

* Reading at Columbia College, Sonora, CA on Friday, Oct. 16, 3:30 p.m.
* Reading at Sonora Joe's, Sonora, CA on Friday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m.
* Workshop at Tuolumne County Arts Alliance on Saturday, Oct. 17, 9-12 p.m.
* Reading at San Jose State on Thursday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m.

The title of the workshop is "How to Believe in Your Writing." I feel like, at age 52, I'm finally getting a handle on this--deeply knowing and appreciating that I am a creative creature who has every right to create what I want and get it out there how I want, no apologies or explanations. We all have this right.

Who knows where this crazy desire to make stuff comes from? It's one of the big mysteries. As we leave L.A. for our next adventure (three months all over Northern California), I have a familiar feeling of impermanence welling up inside, my pulse on another deeply mysterious truth: Life is change.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting Unhooked: A Conversation with Susan Shapiro

When I decided to become more mindful about my drinking, I wanted to look at a lifetime, mostly unthought, habit. Ditto with food and coffee and sometimes shopping and exercise.

I can see now (or admit now) that at times I'd get mad or anxious if I couldn't have my fix. Hiking only two miles? Not enough! Coffee delayed beyond 10 a.m.? Help! No wine or beer served at this restaurant? Really???

I want a peaceful mind, a mind that can sit, a mind that can go with the flow. A mind that doesn't expect something external to make me feel better.

Pema Chodron's Buddhist writings have helped me immensely on this path. As have two books that are decidedly not Buddhist: Jason Vale's Kick the Drink Easily and Fred Woolverton and Susan Shapiro's Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Although both are geared toward the addict who needs to quit, I think they are also helpful for people like me who'd like to look at their habits and compulsions and still have a drink or a dessert now and then. This amalgamation of ideas is not about deprivation but about a peaceful, happy mind and body. It's about making friends with my feelings.

Unhooked was co-written by a therapist and his client, Susan Shapiro--who also wrote a funny memoir about quitting her addictions, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved In Life Except Sex. For my "Books That Inspire" series, I spoke to her.

It was interesting to read your humorous memoir about addiction, followed by a book you co-wrote with your therapist, Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Dr. Woolverton helped you quit smoking cigarettes and other compulsive behaviors, including daily pot smoking, obsessive gum chewing, and imbibing prodigious amounts of diet soda. How long has it been since you quit? And do you ever re-read these two books as a kind of refresher--or have you moved on?

Thanks Kate! I don't go back to read my old books often because I start to revise and rewrite. I've been clean, smoke-and-drug-and-gum free for thirteen-and-a-half years now. In that time I don't think it's a coincidence that I've published ten books. I actually wrote my first novel Speed Shrinking about my sugar addiction, which happened after Dr. Woolverton moved to a different state. I've stemmed that but it's still a struggle. Food is the worst addiction to conquer because you have to eat three times a day. It's become easier for me to quit something entirely than be moderate.
At the heart of Dr. Woolverton's approach is this: we must learn how to use "strength and creativity to solve our psychological problems" instead of turning to substances that actually stunt our emotional growth and "thwart our ability to discover new coping mechanisms." Now that you don't use substances to numb yourself, how do you deal with difficulties?
I depend on people instead of substances, like my husband, family, and close friends. I still do therapy sometimes when I feel a need. I'm a workaholic. I work out, though when I was kick boxing, I hurt my back. My physical therapist Kenan was a Bosnian war survivor so we actually did a book together called The Bosnia List. I said "You fix my back, I'll fix your pages." 
Now, I'm much more connected to my husband. I talk to my mom on the phone every day. I rely on the brilliant critics in my two writing groups twice a week. I don't think most addicts will ever be able to only rely on themselves. As Dr. Woolverton said, addicts depend on substances not people. So when you take away the substances, you need others to help. If you're that type, I think it's important to understand your personality and flaws and always have backup plans. A Jungian astrologer said my chart shows I would always be extremely dependent on people. I do best with collaboration. Also "you'll take others higher than you'll take yourself."
Dr. Woolverton says that being secretive is harmful to the addict. Was writing a substance abuse memoir a deliberate part of your path to sobriety?

No it wasn't deliberate. Though I always journaled and took a lot of notes in therapy since he said so many fascinating lines like, "Underlying every substance problem I'm ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable." And to stay healthy and happy "lead the least secretive life you can." I suggest to that my students that they write about their worst obsessions. So when the addiction therapy was taking over my life for a year and I was chronicling it anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to turn it into a book.  Doing research, there were tons of memoirs about quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine and food. But I didn't find any funny first person books about quitting cigarettes, which was my main addiction. I smoked two packs a day for 27 years. So there was a hole I felt I could fill humorously.

You mention that quitting smoking and drinking made you more empathetic and intuitive. Almost 14 years later, is this still the case? 

Yes I'm more empathetic and intuitive. But I'm also still thin-skinned.  I don't travel as much as I used to. I'm no longer a people-pleaser. I'm not as complacent and nice. I'm rigid. I wrote an essay about quitting guilt that starts "I spent the last two years saying no." And in those two years I got everything I wanted. I've become much more selfish and more generous at the same time. As Dr. Woolverton said "Don't expect anything from an unhappy person, they have nothing to give. You'd get more from a happy stranger."

Well now that I'm happy and getting everything I want, I have much more energy to give. My husband and I are closer,  I'm more connected to  certain relatives and friends I love.  I have tons more students getting published in The New York Times and Washington Post (sometimes daily) and more getting big book deals. But if someone wants my help, it has to be on my schedule. I usually write 9 to 5 seven days a week. I don't answer the phone or email. If somebody comes by without an appointment, I don't get the door. I teach at 6 p.m. Then I'm ready to be very giving. I'm a night owl, so that's the best time to find me. 

Dr. Woolverton tells you to "aim for being closer to yourself." He stresses we must learn how to be unafraid of our feelings. I think that's great advice for anyone, even those who aren't addicts. What strategies do you use to be "closer to yourself"?

I personally love crossword puzzles, reading newspapers, journaling. Sometimes I do what Oprah suggests: a gratitude list, writing everything I feel grateful for. I love to swim, which I find soothing. And I do walking office hours with my students every night around Washington Square Park, which clears my head. I like listening to music. Once a week I get  a manicure, pedicure, back massage and foot massage while grading my school papers. It costs $100 and I  come out an hour later feeling cleaner, revitalized and productive. A friend jokes that's Sue's idea of relaxation. While I was going through withdrawal,  Dr. Woolverton told me to have my husband hold me one hour every night as we watched a movie or TV show on DVD, without speaking. That's still one of my favorites.

Dr. Woolverton says, "Using isn't pleasure-seeking, it's pain-avoiding. Do you still find yourself avoiding pain? What do you do when you catch yourself?

Unfortunately, eating at night is still an issue. I don't keep any junk food at home. But living in New York, I can pick up the phone and have anything delivered 24 hours a day. I'm sometimes conscious that I'm stressed out or frustrated, and I'm eating to fill that void, instead of staying with the discomfort--as Dr. Woolverton says, "letting it tell its own story." I have to fight myself. That's when I journal, or phone a friend. Or read. Or listen to certain music.

Your book ends with a humorously-wrought awareness that you are becoming addicted to low-cal ice cream. To me that suggests that after the book is over and your life continues, you might struggle with addictions to anything. Has this been the case?

Yes! I recently had to quit frozen yogurt. I don't think an addictive person stops being compulsive. We just get hooked on different--hopefully healthier--habits. I definitely feel addiction to book deals and literary events. When Dr. Woolverton heard how excited I was getting from good press he said, "That's your new heroin!"

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop smoking, toking, and drinking right now. It'll be a blockade to all your dreams. Get into therapy quickly. That's what I tell my students and younger protégées all the time.

Susan Shapiro lives in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops and seminars.
Visit her website to learn more.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Prescription for Joy

I've been in a bit of a slump lately. Had a weird virus thing, and on top of it had three, yes THREE, Freddy Krueger-ish periods in one month.

I am peri-menopausal, hear me roar.

I've also been feeling a bit blue about illness, death, and divorce happening in my loving circle.

Yesterday I did a specific meditation. I breathed in love on my inhalation, and breathed out stress on my exhalation. I asked how I could be of service, and how I could amp up my mojo.

What came to me is: Change is the truth of life. Nothing is going wrong. Be love.

Afterward, I went into this amazing backyard and swung on this swing:

Where we are housesitting (in Rancho Palos Verdes, California).
Then I hula hooped. Swinging and hooping, I was no longer a 52-year-old woman; I was a timeless child.

Later, on a walk, I saw a woman struggling to pull one of three refuse cans up her steep driveway. I thought about how my mom always said, "If you want to feel better, help someone out."

Then I thought, I might frighten her if I grab one of her garbage cans and haul it up to her house. She's going to think I'm a murderer or a Jehovah's Witness.

So I said, "Hi! Would you like some help? It'll be my Random Act of Kindness."

She laughed and said, "Sure!"

So I lugged her garbage can up, and she smiled and said, "Thanks." I bounded down the road feeling the best I had in a long time.

We are here on this housesit the month of September. I think my daily routine is going to be this:

* meditate
* swing
* hula hoop
* write
* perform a random act of kindness.

It's hard to think of a better prescription for joy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Writing Alzheimer's: Tanya Ward Goodman & B. Lynn Goodwin

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia have affected innumerable lives, including my own. My mom, a writer and a nurse, wrote about her dementia as her capacities diminished. And I wrote about my caregiving experiences in my journals, in innumerable emails to loved ones, on this blog--and ultimately in my memoir.

What is it about the intersection of illness, caregiving, and writing?
I recently read two books that address the creative fire's role in grieving, loving, and healing. I also spoke to both authors.

Tanya Ward Goodman writes in Leaving Tinkertown about the simultaneous decline into dementia of her father and grandmother. Astonishingly, the book isn't dreary. It's permeated with love and resilience.  As Tanya said, "Alzheimer’s disease is a huge tragedy, but my family emerged intact. We continue to love and create and connect and that is not a downer."

In the book, the portrait of her father made me wish I'd known him. Ross Ward was a "consistently creative person," said Tanya, a man whose "curiosity and enthusiasm about the world was contagious."

He was a unique thinker and a free spirit who built Tinkertown Museum, a roadside attraction outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the book, Tanya explores the awful losses associated with dementia--but she also addresses how some of the changes can be surprisingly positive. Her father's "sense of wonder and excitement was in some ways deepened," and she describes the disease as "loosening" her grandmother. I found this to be true for my mom, too. As she lost her language, I was able to massage her and hold her in ways she might not have enjoyed before. We developed a new kind of closeness.

Tanya said that spending time with her dad and grandmother encouraged her "to slow down. At the beginning, this was incredibly hard" because of all that caregiving requires. "Eventually, though, I let myself go along with Dad and Gran as much as I could. They relaxed because we weren’t always correcting them or trying to force them to remember and we benefited from the intimacy."

Tanya Ward Goodman (photo by Doug Piburn)
She added that with her father, "it was fun to gather rocks or watch the dogs sleeping in the sun. We spent a lot of time going over his scrapbooks. He’d tell me the same story again and again, but it was comforting to us both. As his disease progressed, my operating mantra became, 'why not?' I indulged him. It wasn’t going to kill him to eat a pint of ice cream for dinner. It wasn’t going to break the bank to buy a roll of sparkle stickers. Sure, we didn’t need more art books, but they made him happy, so why not?"

I was especially struck by her take-away: "I try to continue to live this way. Life is short. Spend real time with the people you love. If you want to do something or go somewhere and you can figure out a way to make it happen, why not?"
Tanya didn't set out to write a book. At first she wrote essays to sort through her feelings. She also kept a sporadic journal and wrote long emails to her boyfriend. Later, she sorted through all of that and the book emerged. 

"I kept asking myself 'what is the story? What is my story?' To that end, my biggest advice to memoir writers, or any writers for that matter, is to keep writing. Write everything you can think to write and then pare it down. Getting lost is, for me, a way to find a true path."
Whether or not you are going to write a book, B. Lynn Goodwin--author of You Want Me to Do What?: Journaling for Caregivers--encourages caregivers to write because "writing relieves stress rather than creating it. It allows a caregiver, or anyone, to vent without hurting someone's feelings." Writing, said Lynn, can help us see that we are not alone. It allows us "to process, dig deeper, get to the truth, plan strategies, and find solutions." Lynn pointed out that caregivers are not the only ones who can benefit. Her book could easily be titled, Journaling for Everyone.

B. Lynn Goodwin
I like the book's evocative prompts, such as: "Today I hope...", "I can barely remember...", "I lust after...", "Chocolate always...", "My life changed when...", and "At the edge of my heart..."

"If you start with a prompt, you never have to face a blank page," said Lynn. You can "finish the sentence and let the writing take you wherever you want to go or need to go."

Writing helps us grapple all that it means to be human. And in the very act of writing, we feel the power of its generative force. It is life giving.

Tanya Ward Goodman writes for The Next Family and lives in Los Angeles. She is working on a novel about becoming a mother. Visit her website.

B. Lynn Goodman is the owner of Writer Advice. She conducts workshops and writes reviews for Story Circle Network. Her young adult novel, Talent, will be out November 1, and she is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Fruit is so sexy": Writing and the Body.

As part of my series on Books That Inspire, I had a chat with the inspirational--dare I say, luscious goddess?--Gayle Brandeis. Read on for some inspiring words about how to love your body and jump-start your writing.

Me: Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write is such a juicy, gorgeous book. It inspires us to write and live with our senses wide open. You start the book with a revelation you had in high school that involves a strawberry. And one of your novels, Delta Girls, features a fruit-picking character and begins with a discussion of pears. I call myself a "fruit bat" because I love fruit so much. What is it with fruit? What makes it such an important element (literally and metaphorically) in life and writing?

Gayle: Thank you so much, Kate—always nice to find a fellow fruit bat! I’ve loved fruit all my life, and it’s long felt connected to language for me. When I was in third grade, my teacher gave our class “succulent” as a vocabulary word; I had a pear for a snack after school that day, and told my mom “My, what a succulent pear”. It made me very happy to use my new word, and not just because it made my mom gasp; the word felt just as juicy in my mouth as the pear. Fruit is so sexy, its seeds so full of potential—the perfect metaphor for both writing and our bodies. 

Fruitflesh is filled with wonderful--and often surprising--writing activities. Have you done every writing activity in this book? Which one or two are your favorites? And if you took your own advice and wrote on your body, what did you write?

I did indeed test drive every single exercise in the book. The ones that have had the most staying power for me are all the sensory-based prompts. I use them often in my workshops, asking my students to write so the reader can feel/taste/see/smell/hear the words on the page. And Dictionary Poems: crack open a dictionary at random, close your eyes and point to a word, then write a poem around that word. It’s still something I turn to if I’m not sure what to write. If I recall correctly—it’s been a while—I wrote just one word on my body: YES.

You write, "There are many ways of knowing. Our bodies have great imaginations." How can we hear what our bodies are "imagining" or telling us? How does that translate to the page?

I find that our bodies’ imaginations come into play the most when we’re writing fiction, or accessing memory in our work. I do an exercise with my fiction students where I have them close their eyes and check in to their own bodies; once they’re really grounded inside their own skin, we start to morph into all sorts of other bodies—we imagine ourselves as a three year old boy, a 90-year-old woman, a 400 pound man, a dolphin, a hummingbird, etc.—and then we write about the experience. It’s our bodies’ sense of kinesthetic empathy that allows us to imagine what it’s like to live in other bodies, that allows us to access the “other” in our work—it’s the same sense that allows us to feel what it must be like to be running when we watch the Olympics, or that makes us cringe when someone falls down, as if we can feel it in our own body. When we tap into the body’s intelligence and imagination, we become more compassionate--since the root of the word means “to suffer with,” and when we fully can imagine being in another person’s skin, we can more deeply connect with their suffering. And yes, if we just get quiet and listen to our own bodies, we can learn so much about our own stories.

The book is geared toward women. Have you ever talked with a man who read it? What was his reaction?

Several men have told me they’ve gotten a lot out of Fruitflesh, which makes me happy; they said they just skipped over the parts they felt didn’t apply to them. When I first envisioned this project, I wasn’t planning to gear it toward women—the book was originally titled Writing From the Body, and I thought I had this great, fresh approach to writing, but then a book called Writing From the Body written by John Lee came out when I was about halfway through the first draft, and I was devastated; I felt as if my life’s work had been taken from me. Eventually I realized there was still room for my voice, and I decided to distinguish my project by focusing on women writers. I was very happy to do this; I thought the book offered a great opportunity to help break through the damaging messages we receive about our bodies as women, to help us appreciate our bodies and the stories they can tell.

You write, "Being a person can be embarrassing." I once heard memoirist Joe Loya say, "In order to write a memoir, we have to be willing to be embarrassed." How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page?

That hasn’t been easy for me. Even around the time I wrote Fruitflesh, I was less willing to embarrass myself on the page than I probably would have admitted. I think it’s helped to get older and not care so much what other people think. It’s helped to feel as if I can own my own story, including my bad decisions and deeply human flaws. It’s helped to not need to be seen as “perfect” I am a recovered perfectionist, and as Anne Lamott says, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” Also, reading other writers who are able to be vulnerable on the page has given me courage to lay my own life bare. 

You write, "Writing involves listening. Deep listening. We need to quiet ourselves so we can hear the world around us in a true, clear way." In such a busy, noisy world, how do you focus on deep listening? What advice can you give to other writers?

This is not easy to do—I definitely have more trouble doing it now than when I wrote the book 15 years ago; the constant lure of social media has dramatically affected my ability to slow down and listen deeply. But it’s so necessary—for my sanity and my writing—to take time to just breathe, and check in with my body and feel really grounded in the moment. This can happen while going for a walk through the forest, or just sitting and closing my eyes for a few minutes, or dancing like a wild woman and feeling as if my body is taking me exactly where it needs to go—anything that gets me to that place of receptivity only enriches my writing (and my experience as a person!)

It seems that in your ruminations, the body, sexuality/the libido, and creativity/writing are all intertwined. Why do you think this is? Why is it important for women writers to tap into these interconnections?

Our culture teaches us as women to see ourselves at war with our bodies, to feel as if we’re somehow lacking or “wrong” if we don’t fit the airbrushed media ideal. When I wrote Fruitflesh, I think I was reminding myself, and hoping I could remind other women, that we don’t need to listen to our culture’s damaging messages, that we can start to love and accept our bodies as they are and tap into our physicality as a source of creativity and wisdom and power, that we can remove shame from our narratives of desire and sex, that we can claim our full experience, let desire fuel us in the world and on the page.  I wish I could say that writing the book led me to love and accept my body all the time, that I never fall prey to body insecurities, but that wouldn’t be honest; I still struggle at times with body image, still measure myself negatively against that ridiculous ideal. Fruitflesh continues to help me, though. I read my own words and find myself teaching myself what I need to learn all over again. The book helps remind me to forget about how I look and focus on how I feel inside my skin, to write from that juicy, painful, experiential place.

You are the author of Fruitflesh, four novels, and a poetry chapbook--as well as stories, poems, and essays that have appeared in an impressive array of journals. You are currently finishing up a memoir and are co-editing an anthology about suicide loss. And on top of it all, you have children, a husband, and you teach for three programs: Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch in L.A. How is this humanly possible? Ha. What I really want to know is: How do you structure your life so you have time to write?

I don't! I am kind of structure averse, actually--I'm much more of a go with the flow kind of person. Of course I need to stick to schedules for class times, etc., but in terms of fitting everything in, somehow I have an intuitive sense of what needs to get done when and I try to give my attention as fully as possible to whatever task is at hand and not get too overwhelmed by everything else that needs to get done. I fit the writing in whenever and wherever I can--I don't have a set writing schedule; I just take advantage of little windows in my day, and those windows can feel spacious even if they're small. Sometimes 15 minutes of furious writing can be more productive than a full day of staring at the screen.
Gayle Brandeis has been awarded the Bellwether Prize and a Silver Nautilus Book Award. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She lives in Tahoe. Check out her website:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Chicago Life

We had barely landed in Chicago, when a cousin I had met only through Facebook asked if I wanted to get together for brunch.

Anne-Marie brought her two sisters and her mom, who was my father's cousin--the woman I was named after. I hadn't seen her since I was a child.

Janet, Anne-Marie, the Kathleeens, Elaine
It was a sweet way to begin our adventure. Well, actually our orientation started a few days before when we first met Mike and Joanne, the people who picked us off a housesitting website. We spent a day together. They showed us around their Hyde Park neighborhood which features lots of brick, flowers, mature trees, and gorgeous architecture. We walked to the Lake Michigan waterfront and through the gothic architecture of the University of Chicago campus.

The Obamas' house is just a few blocks away, surrounded by Secret Service barriers. Down the street is a plaque that commemorates their first date.

They made us dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. Before they took off on their own adventure, we went with them to a moving service at their Unitarian church. It didn't take long before we were encamped in their home with their two dogs. The nomads know how to adapt.

Bear on the chair, Jake on the floor.
Some days we hang out at home, walking the dogs, doing yoga, and taking care of business (me, writing and editing; Dave, working on the development of a new company).

Other days, we explore, or visit the farmer's market, or walk across the street for the free music in the park.

Near the train entrance.

On the days we venture downtown, there is so much to see. The art and architecture are mind-blowing. As are the food and music.
Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago

Blues at Buddy Guy's Legends.

It's a very walkable city, even in the heat and humidity. Fortunately, this has been a milder summer than most. Still, it feels strange for this native Californian to feel like the air is a thing.

Navy Pier
We launched into full-speed tourist mode when our friends Paul and Mari Carmen arrived from Mexico City. At the same time, our friend Kate has been here as well, serendipitously coming through the area more than three months into her "Big Adventure" road trip.

Kate, Paul, Mari Carmen, Dave, and me reflected in the Bean.
Our tour guide and hostess par excellence has been Pam, a long-time friend who lives in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb famous as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Pam took us around the neighborhood to see a bunch of his remarkable homes.

My favorite Frank Lloyd Wright.

The crew with Frank.

The whirlwind of activities included a picnic and free jazz in Millennium Park...

The Kates do headstands before the music starts. architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, where we learned a lot about the history of the stunning array of buildings...
Architecture boat tour down the Chicago River.
...dinner (and a Doors cover band) at an open air restaurant at Montrose beach....
So warm at night it felt like a Mexico beach. 
... and a baseball game at Wriggly Field. Even though our Giants lost (damn), I was glad to have experienced this park that has hosted the MLB for more than 100 seasons. The visibility is really good--and the bratwurst rocks. It was charming to see someone behind the scoreboard manually updating the score!

In our last two weeks here, we plan to kayak down the river, experience more music and perhaps see some of the famous Chicago theater. Even though living full-time in an urban world is not my bag, Chicago reminds me how enjoyable time in a city can be--and how astonishing is its scope.