Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand." - Mother Teresa

The semester is winding down, and once again I'm reminded how much I enjoy the rhythms of the academic year. These rhythms reflect the movement of the seasons. Right now everyone's got that sleepy, sparkly holidays-are-here-finals-are-almost-over glow. It feels a little like everyone's bedazzled by the cold air. And by the chance to finish up and start again, which is the promise of seasonal change.

The energy was palpable today as my creative writing students met for the final, which was a poetry reading. We laughed, clapped, snapped, oohed and ahhed over the word play, humor and profundity. Poems came in all varieties: a performance poem riffing on "truth," humorous poems about marijuana ("Ode to Mary Jane") and masturbation; a haiku series featuring a banana, and another about hidden natural environments in San Jose; a poem about family alternating between English and Spanish; a piece about--as the student put it--"relearning how to love someone"; and a poem sung to the accompaniment of two guitars.

To put it simply: I basked in the love! This was one of those magical classes that gels in a special way. Something about the chemistry of the group, an elixir of creativity and connection.

I, too, contributed to the final event by reading a poem. This one is another in a series I've written based on random words Meg Pokrass, a Facebook friend, posts.

Here are the words she posted: door, mother, butter, horsehair, holler, roach, fast, taste, lurid, hops, ironed, accordion, boneheaded, bedcover, mildew, wax, soda, stride, sofa, squares, denim.

And below is my poem. What I like about the poem is that encapsulates the wisdom of some of the teachers I've been following the past few years. And this is the wisdom: Go with the flow. Don't push against things. Honor the seasons.

The Way of Things

Some things turn to butter as fast
as that accordionist’s fingers passed

the black keys. Some things taste
lurid, like hops and wishes and paste.

(Soda erased the mildew in the mouth
when we ate our art projects.) South

of your bedcovers, some things wax
poetic, while others stick to the facts.

Some things strive like a mother
patches things up with denim squares or other

ironed fabrics. That door over there?
It’s blocked by the horsehair sofa but doesn’t care.

Holler at it all you want; it’s boneheaded,
stubborn as a roach. Some things are wedded

to the truth, while others are married to lies.
Things have their ways. Take them in stride.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." -Albert Einstein

I got the best birthday present this year. Dave took me away for a few days for a trip up the coast. On the day of my 49th birthday, we lay barefoot on a blanket on the beach in the cool, sunny day. The waves were huge and the horizon hazy, making elusive where land ended and sky began. In one dreamy moment I was thinking, It doesn't get better than this. And suddenly it did. Because he pulled a ring out of his pocket and asked me to marry him.

Of course I said yes. I didn't have a doubt because I'm so in love with this man. I love the way he and I create together a meaningful, joyous life. The ring, a blue gem set in white gold, was perfect--one I would have picked for myself. It looks like the sky, the sea, the world from afar.

Again I was thinking, It doesn't get better than this--when he said with a smile, "Champagne?" A bottle and two glasses materialized from his backpack.

So I guess the better it gets, the better it gets!

As I've shared the news with people, I've been deeply touched by the outpouring of love. Take my friend Stacey. I told her the engagement news on the phone the other day. She squealed with happiness and said, "Aren't you glad you went through what you did a few years ago? Because you needed to in order to get where you are now. And you certainly wouldn't have wanted to miss out on this!"

And then the next day, I received a poem she sent me by email:


How reassuring to know
passionate love
still exists. Where once blackened rubble
now sweet scented blooms
so vibrant
one can hardly remember
that rocky desolation
out of which they grew
old decay
now new

Talk about a friend who's a witness to your life. In this poem, she testifies to the richness of our friendship--and to the incredible resilience of humans. As Camus once said, "In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer." We can continue to thrive because change is constant, expansion is the name of life's game.

Over the years, Stacey and I have taken long beach walks, talking through our challenges, the eternal nature of the ocean reassuring us. It's been a while since we've done that. But soon we are going to have many more opportunities because next week, Dave and I are moving to Santa Cruz. I've lived in Santa Cruz before. It always felt like my home. I've enjoyed living in downtown San Jose the past few years with the easy walk to work, to restaurants, to fun events like Music in the Park and the San Jose Jazz Festival. Yet there's nothing like living near the beach and the redwoods, with all the great hiking trails, access to kayaking, and all the other outdoor adventures we love. We'll be living in a condo just two blocks from my favorite beach, and we're close to downtown and--most importantly--a few great music venues! And there's a bus that will chug me over the hill to work, dropping me right on campus my three days a week.

One of the things my birthday weekend reminded me of is that we here in the Bay Area live in an amazing place. Dave planned the whole thing to show me some of his favorite spots. I just packed and went along for the ride. The first day of our adventure, we hiked in Butano State Park, a place of towering redwoods, filtered light, and a zillion banana slugs. For the first time ever, I saw one of those bizarre, bright yellow creatures eating--happily munching on some slimy fungus. Who am I to judge?

Dave then ferried us to a little jewel of a place, Harley Farms Goat Dairy in the coastal town of Pescadero. There we tasted some of the most delicious cheeses that have ever melted in my mouth, bought a few for a picnic, and then visited with the goats who seemed to think my pink jacket would taste as good as their cheese did.

After enjoying the sunset as it cast gold light and shadow onto nature's intricate sandstone sculptures at Pescadero Beach, we ate dinner at Pescadero's renowned Duarte's Tavern. There is absolutely nothing snooty about this place. It feels like hanging out at your most fun aunt's house, the one who keeps food on the stove at all times and who hasn't bought a new piece of furniture since 1963. Should you ever find yourself there, the Cream of Chile soup is a must. We also had a generous portion of cold, steamed artichoke hearts with aioli dip for appetizer. Our fried scallop and prawn dinners were yummy in a down-home-don't-even-talk-about-quinoa-or-yoga kind of way.

That night we stayed in a tent bungalow at at Costanoa, an "eco adventure resort," as they dub themselves. It was kind of like camping but without having to deal with tent posts and blow-up mattresses. The tent bungalow had a wooden floor, canvas walls with windows, and a heated bed--a perfect place to stay toasty while we enjoyed a glass of wine. We then bundled in fat, cozy Costanoa bathrobes and trundled off to the huge communal hot tub. We enjoyed some time alone in the steaming water under the stars until a couple and their two young girls joined us. They'd been to a wedding that day at Costanoa. Little did I know that such wedding conversation was foreshadowing the next day...

... which involved our long walk on Half Moon Bay state beach and the perfect proposal described above. That night we stayed in Half Moon Bay at the home of friends who were out of town. A five-star hotel couldn't have been any better because their pad came with a sweet cat named Digit, and a great deck overlooking the town and sea. There, Dave gave me presents (as though the ring wasn't enough!) including a Kindle Fire--which has since worked as a lovely distraction from grading papers.

That night we lingered over a sushi dinner at Sushi Main Street. We enjoyed both the food and company, as we engaged in conversation at the sushi bar with a local couple who've been married for almost 40 years (they met in high school and attest to the benefits of sharing a life together). Their son used to work at the restaurant, so they plied us with recommendations of what to order next and what other restaurants to visit in the area--and then they handed us a gift certificate for ten bucks off our meal. People like sharing their expertise. And we were happy to be the recipients of their culinary and life lessons.

Because Dave is an aficionado of squeezing the most out of an adventure, even though Sunday was the next day we were not immediately headed home. First, we had breakfast at a locals place where you order at the counter and sit at a rickety table, the walls covered in year-old fliers. I don't recall the name of the place, but Dave devoured a massive and satisfying breakfast burrito, and I inhaled truly the best scramble with cheese and bacon I've ever had. After polishing it off I craved more and wondered if the secret ingredient was crack.

Fortified, we headed out for a hike in Purissima Creek Open Space Preserve. We took a 10-mile loop on a duff-soft, well-tended trail. This place is otherworldly fragrant with the dampness of creek and cathedral of redwoods. We also passed through areas of oak woodland. The hike is challenging the last few miles, which ascend from the creek back up to the ridge. Tingling with the sweet sweat of exertion, we finally got back in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (our blue Subaru) and headed home. Back to the city that will be our home for a short time until our next adventure calls: that of moving to Santa Cruz, where we will have easy access to all of these coastal riches. In a sense, the birthday and engagement adventure was a preview of coming attractions: a life among the ocean and forest. A life walking the path together--sometimes downhill, sometimes up. And always the trees, with their interminable roots.

Friday, November 4, 2011

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I always loved to travel. I was the woman, after all, who at age 29 had moved to Japan to teach; the woman who traveled by myself from Japan to Korea, and later throughout Italy and Spain. And I loved road trips. Ever since I got my driver’s license at 16, it was nothing for me to drive six, seven, eight hours—from the Bay Area down to L.A., from the foothills up into the Sierra Nevada, from Northern California to Portland or Ashland.

My parents had fostered the love of travel in me and my sisters. As a family, we’d taken road adventures, camping excursions, trips to the homes of friends who lived in various states, trips to Disneyland and Mexico, a cruise of the Caribbean. As a kid, I felt a palpable sense of freedom in traveling, and the sense of time and place took on a completely different sense and scope. And then there was the feeling of returning home—refreshed, and looking at the familiar with new eyes.

As much as I loved exploration, by the time I was in my mid-twenties I had done more fantasizing about traveling than actual traveling itself. I had jumped right from high school into college, and every summer I held a job waitressing, or working as a camp counselor, or as a lifeguard. While in college, I had fantasized about taking trains through Europe but ended up married right out of college. I decided that the ideal honeymoon would be to go to a place my parents loved, that I’d heard a lot about, but had never been to: Hawaii. The island of Kauai. My fiancée wasn’t as excited about the notion as I was, but he didn’t have a stellar alternative, so he succumbed.

My new husband was a 27-year-old man who was a private pilot but had flown and been a passenger on only small planes; he’d never been on an airliner until the day after our wedding. Inspired by some marriage movie fantasy, I wore a blue and white sun dress and a wide-brimmed hat on the plane. I imagined us in a From Here to Eternity embrace on a beach—and inspired by my parents’ stories of the elegance of island hotels, pictured us on the lanai of our condo, feeding each other macadamia nuts and pineapple slices, followed by champagne.

But it turned out he didn’t especially like macadamia nuts, and beer was his beverage of choice. He didn’t like to lie down on the sand (too scratchy; got in all his cracks and crevices), and we hadn’t brought the right shoes for trekking over lava. He was a scuba diver, but snorkeling captured his attention for only a short period of time. Hiking didn’t appeal to him, and he vetoed my suggestion that we rent horses for a romantic ride on the beach because it was too expensive. Taking a helicopter ride in Waimea Canyon was also out because didn’t I know that helicopters are the most dangerous, unstable air vehicle? In fact, hadn’t a copter full of tourists crashed just last year?

The whole Kauai scene he found, and I use his word, “boring.” This off-hand critique of what I’d imagined would be the most romantic adventure ever was made worse by the fact that he hadn’t like flying on the commercial airliner. He’d squirmed for most of the five-hour flight, white-faced. And his anxiety about having to cross the Pacific again on the return flight kept him on edge most of our honeymoon week. When he flew small planes, he was in control. But, he said, in a jet that he himself wasn’t flying there was so much that could go wrong.

He hated being the one not in control. I was only 22 so perhaps I can forgive myself for not predicting the doom of our marriage. I can forgive myself for not being able to set my own boundaries. See, there was something about being with a “man in control” that had appealed to me. I’d been a crazy party girl before meeting him, and I’d been attracted to him as a stabilizing force. Of course what attracts us to a person—if the attraction is borne from a need for completion—is often what we end up resenting later. Initially I loved his “stability.” It felt like it balanced out my folly. Later I resented his “stuck-in-the-mud-ishness” and decided I was too Bohemian for that type of marriage.

Something else happened to me on my honeymoon. Something that Monday Morning Psychoanalyzing makes evident. I began to develop claustrophobia. Everything manifests in some way, and my feeling trapped and suffocated was virtually a literal response to my life choices. Certainly I had an ambivalent relationship with that marriage. The battle that raged in me was this: Security versus Freedom. I recall now that I’d never been afraid of flying but seeing my new husband next to me on the flight home drinking beer after beer to calm his nerves—and having his words echo in my head about all the things that could go wrong—unsettled me to the core. If Mr. Stability was unstable about this flying thing, then I certainly needed to fear it. He knew all about planes. He knew this flight from Hawaii to California on this big, unwieldy jet wasn’t safe, was to be feared. I swallowed his belief system like an addict swallows whatever pills she’s handed.

Suddenly I was breathing shallowly. I thought about the doors of the plane, how they’d been hauled shut and locked down, how I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. I gripped the armrest. I tried to channel the blasé attitudes of the flight attendants who walked the aisles as though the floor of this plane were firmly settled on the ground.

That was the first and last flight I took with my husband. The marriage lasted five years. Because he worked (on the ground) for an airline, we could fly free. But we never did. And then, when we separated, I realized I had one last chance to fly somewhere free before the divorce was final and I’d lose my free flying privileges.

I decided on Hawaii. I wanted to experience it by myself, to see if I could enjoy it alone and love what I’d fantasized was wonderful it. I would ride a horse on the beach. I would dig my toes in the sand. I would snorkel for hours and hike a volcano. I began to think of the trip as my anti-honeymoon. I was 27 years old.

I could get off work for only a few days, so I decided to fly to Oahu, the easiest island to get to with a direct flight out of San Francisco. In my carry-on, I packed a couple pairs of shorts and a bathing suit and running shoes, and wore a casual sundress with sandals (no wide-brimmed hat). I didn’t have a hotel reservation; in my new Bohemian attitude, I surmised I’d figure out where to stay when I got there. I was traveling as light as possible—nothing I had to do except step on the plane, alone. Yet I felt oddly heavy with remnants of fear: Could I really do this all by myself?

When the doors of the plane shut, a thread of anxiety zipped up my spine. My pulse ticked up a few beats. I was irritated with myself for the way my claustrophobia had worsened over the past few years. It was to the point where I could hardly sit in the back seat of a car that had only two doors; I didn’t like to be in the center of a row in a movie theater; I panicked in large crowds. I took a deep breath. The overweight man next to me was hogging the armrest, and a bit of his flesh overflowed into my space. No matter how I leaned, I couldn’t quite get away from his touch. I kept focusing on the fact that I was now free. I could make my own life decisions. That helped me breathe more easily. The divorce was my decision. I had outgrown a marriage that felt like it was prematurely making me old. I thought of my husband as 30-going-on-50—and if I didn’t escape I’d be old at 27. He wore white button-down shirts to work every day, which I ironed. All the cooking and grocery shopping were my responsibility. He could spend money however he liked without consulting me, but if I wanted to buy anything, we had to negotiate it. He was an aficionado of World War II and collected old bomber jackets, and books and movies of the time. He loved it when I wore dresses with big shoulder pads (ala 1940s movie actresses). How I had I let things come to this? I was a feminist, a lover of adventure and risk-taking. I had let the part of me that desired stability usurp the urge for freedom in me.

My husband had been devastated when I told him I wanted to break up. He’d not seen it coming, although he had told me months before that he was worried that all the literature I was reading in my graduate program was making me “too idealistic and too optimistic.” He’d felt my urge for freedom blooming. And I blossomed into someone who couldn’t live a June Cleaver life.

The plane began to taxi. It had been cold in the Bay Area that early spring; I reveled in imagining myself basking on a warm beach and tried to ignore the flesh of the man next to me pressing into mine, as well as my own creepy feeling that I couldn’t escape this plane. As the aircraft lifted, the blue bay appeared below us. The whole planeload of people tilted back, the plane pushing hard, fighting gravity.

We were about 6,000 feet up when liquid started to pour out of the ceiling of the airplane on the people in the seats spanning five-across in the middle of the plane. It was a clear liquid, no smell. Passengers being rained upon jumped out of their seats, panicked. I watched, oddly detached, as people struggled out of their seats and staggered down the aisles on the floor angled in its ascending position. Some screamed; some cried; some stood there in shock. Flight attendants appeared, throwing blankets over the wet seats, encouraging people to calm down.

After having cultivated a fear of flying and claustrophobia for years, I had a reaction to these events I never would have predicted. I became suddenly very, very calm. Relaxed. Accepting. My eyes swept the blue bay, and I wondered if this is how I’d go, by plunging into the water. The press against me of the fat man’s arm flesh morphed from irritating to comforting; I suddenly reveled in the touch of another human being. My breath was the fullest and most relaxed it had been since I’d stepped onto the plane. Maybe the most it had been in months. My husband wasn’t the only one who liked control. I did too. But here I was in a situation over which I had absolutely no control. And I felt the deepest, most profound sense of freedom I’d ever felt in my life. A complete release of resistance.

In a few minutes, the liquid stopped pouring out of the plane. The plane leveled out. Over the loudspeaker, the pilot told us that we were going to have to land back at SFO. We couldn’t land with all this fuel in the tanks so they’d have to jettison the fuel out over the ocean.

“You’ll see what looks like flames shooting out near the wings,” his disembodied voice reported. “Not to worry; that’s just the fuel being released.”

Indeed, for a few moments it looked like we sat on a burning airplane. Even that didn’t raise a sense of worry or resistance in me. Instead, I found I was curious about the process. I wondered how much of the fuel evaporates, and how much ends up in the water. When the plane landed, the passengers clapped. I smiled at the fat man, whose beady eyes gleamed with what looked like relief. Soon I learned two things: First, the liquid had been just water pouring from a broken drinking water line; and second, I wouldn’t be able to get on another plane for ten hours. This would make my trip not viable since I had to be back to work in two days. So I headed back home, accompanied by my carry-on. My body felt oddly light, as though my bones were the weight of a bird’s.

Interesting how sometimes we have to relearn the most important lessons. After that divorce, my claustrophobia virtually disappeared. I spent a year in Japan, riding subways so crowded that my body was like one piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and eating in eighth-floor restaurants so jam-packed that the back of my coat picked up the butter on someone’s table as I squeezed by, and riding in elevators to the 20th floor of buildings where passengers were virtually shoe-horned in around me. With hardly a thought, I took airplanes, trains, taxis; the doors shut, and I was ferried off to my next adventure.

But later in my life, my claustrophobia returned. It crept back into my life during the 15 years of my second marriage. During that time, both my father—and my wife’s mother—developed severe lung diseases. We were involved in intense caregiving for them—and, coincidentally, both of them were on oxygen and had to undergo similar medical regimens. For several years, our lives revolved around this caregiving, and our relationship was wilting. We both developed stress-related physical problems; an EKG showed she had a heart palpitation irregularity, and I had a hard time breathing sometimes and needed to use an inhaler, like my father. What insanity, now that I look back on it. We both felt like we were drowning in caregiving. We deeply inhaled the fear of morality.

My fear of flying and enclosed spaces had returned. I felt like the only thing that would help me regain a feeling of verve, of new life, was travel. I craved an embrace of freedom. I sensed that getting away and trying new things and going with the flow might help heal us both individually and as a couple. She had an ambivalent relationship with traveling; she resisted it. But if I made all the plans, she’d come along and usually have a great time. Afterward she’d say, “Thank you for forcing me.” And we’d smile with self-deprecation at our dynamic. But with her mother ill, she especially resisted leaving. She said she felt bad flaunting her health and ability to travel while her mother was stuck home, sick.

Finally I convinced her to take a trip to Hawaii with me. We had a friend who gave us a great deal on his condo on the Big Island. I did all the research and got her enthused about the opportunities to experience nature: whales and dolphins, volcanoes and rain forests. She loved those things in the abstract—she read a lot of nature books and watched nature TV programs—but had not experienced much of this in the flesh. The only drawback was the water. She was afraid of swimming in the ocean, and she didn’t like bathing suits. I told her we’d find some calm, beautiful beaches where she could wade—and she fashioned a swimming outfit that she could handle: black, mid-thigh lycra shorts and a black tank top. I bought a new one-piece turquoise bathing suit that made me feel something I hadn’t in a long time: Pretty.

Even though we’d been in the depths of the dark season of our relationship, the Hawaii trip was a revelation of light. The air smelled of sweet flowers. The whales spouted with joy. Eight spinner dolphins joined me as I snorkeled, while my wife watched, enthralled, from the shore. We hiked across a steaming crater, and marveled that we stood in a spot where earth was created. Spontaneously, we rented kayaks from a local and paddled the indigo waters. And one day, in her black swim outfit that looked like a man’s 1920s swim gear, she shouted at me from the shore where I sat in the shadow of my straw hat, reading a book. I looked out, and there she was, floating on her back in the glittering water, waving at me and smiling. I grabbed my camera and took shot after shot of her, floating on her back, floating in what she’d thought she’d feared.

After the trip, we fantasized about moving to Hawaii, but those fantasies disappeared, along with the feeling of freedom and reconnection we’d fostered on the trip. Soon we slipped back into our familiar routines, our stale patterns imbued with worry and fear of mortality.

Several years later, I went back to the island of Hawaii by myself. My wife and I were in the throes of a legal battle to complete our divorce, a brutal breakup of our 15-year relationship. But as often happens when edifices burn to the ground, I felt the phoenix emerging. I’d been single for a while and was now dating a man I liked a lot. The trip to Hawaii felt like an important step for me—like somehow completing a circle, somehow closing a gap.

That was the first flight I’d taken since the break-up. When the airplane doors closed, to my pleasant surprise, nothing happened to me. I didn’t feel an inkling of claustrophobia. I didn’t feel my usual urge to get off the plane, to beg them to open the door. I just sat, looking out the window, same as I would in my apartment—and when the plane had been in the air for a while, I ordered a small bottle of champagne from the flight attendant. I toasted myself, and dubbed this event my “divorce honeymoon.” I was taking myself on a trip. I didn’t have to convince anyone to come with me. I didn’t have to convince anyone else—or myself—that everything would be okay. I was just being, sipping my champagne, and looking forward to whatever adventures awaited me as I disembarked.

And adventures there were. But the most remarkable one was this: I decided to take a long hike by myself across a volcano, a more arduous trek than I’d ever attempted. I had to do something I’d never done before: get a back-country permit, and take a long hike alone. The hike I chose would take about five hours.

I made a conscious decision. I was going to release all fear. Fear had been my companion for so many years: fear of my parents’ illnesses and deaths, fear of flying, fear of being suffocated literally and figuratively. My whole life I’d regulated many of my actions because of the messages I’d embodied: women are vulnerable, women get attacked and raped, women shouldn’t go places alone. I had done enough in my life—like my experiences in Japan—to counter those fears. But I realized that when I’d done those things, I “felt the fear and did it anyway.” On the flight on the way to Hawaii, I’d viscerally remembered that aborted flight almost twenty years before—and how when I’d thought I might die, how when essentially I’d embraced my mortality, I’d felt no fear. It was as though I no longer fought gravity and the free fall felt like flying. I decided that for this hike, I was going to cultivate that feeling. I wasn’t going to fight fear. I was going to release resistance to life and death so that I could fully live.

That morning there was a light rain in Volcano National Park. At the ranger’s station, the ranger didn’t bat an eye as she issued to me the back-country permit and marked my route on a small map. When I walked outside, the wind had picked up. I pulled my disposable rain poncho from my backpack and donned it over my hiking clothes. I knew that this hike would involve the often disorienting feeling that a volcano can engender because of its monochromatic landscape. You have to keep an eye out for the small cairns placed to mark the path, and sometimes the vertical cairns don’t stand out because everything blends together.

Soon I was alone on a massive rock, like a woman on the moon. Vast craters rose out of nowhere, and the tips of my boots hovered over an abyss. Sulphur-smelling steam misted up from the ground, while rain tapped at my plastic covering. After hours of rock-walking, I descended into a rain forest on a narrow trail, branches tugging at my poncho.

After hours of being alone, I saw walking toward me a man, also bound up in a poncho, a hat shielding his eyes, a man ducking the low branches of the rainforest trees. Out there in pure isolation, one of us would have to turn sideways to let the other pass, and all the warnings about being a woman alone began to beep on my internal radar for a solitary second. But I breathed them away. He caught my eye and moved to the side to let me pass on the narrow trail. He said one word: “Hi.”

Then I saw there was another person, a woman turning the corner following him. They were young. They were probably on their honeymoon. She smiled as she squeezed by me and joined her man on the trail. Soon they disappeared, and I was alone again in the canopy of trees. The rain dwindled to a light drizzle, and streaks of sun pushed through the overhead green, illuminating my way.


Postscript: The boyfriend I mentioned here and I have been together almost two years now. He loves Hawaii too, and we plan to go together next summer. Travel continues to remind me to embrace life's journeys, wherever they take me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fun with Facebook Poetry

One of my Facebook writer-friends (Meg Pokrass) posts random words, and then challenges us to write a piece based on those words. I've now done three and enjoyed these "assignments." I love how when I first look at the words, I panic a little; and then that feeling transforms to creative energy that creates the first line, which then builds to the next and the next.

Each exercise is a reminder of how our minds are meaning-making machines. Give us something random, and we'll discover a connection. In a way, we feel that connection before we "understand" it.

Meg's words #1: rat, lips, crap, huh, corrupt, purr, disinterest, hangnail, civil, skyward, inflict, underside, ramp, hate, curdle, sweetness, skim, scarlet, tinge, tendon, squint, condemned


On the underside of curdle, taste the tinge of sweet.

Conclude that only states of mind are indiscreet.

Slide down the ramp of hate into civility’s pool.

Know that all falls yet remains (take Istanbul).

Skim across infliction like the purr of a cat.

Not all with lips are kissable (take the rat).

Corruption ramps up then condemns itself.

Most crap gets flushed or corrodes on the shelf.

Tendons tense and loosen for a reason.

To squint and say “huh?” is not treason.

Ignore hangnails and paint your nails scarlet.

Relish the skyward ride in time’s winged chariot.

Meg's words #2: annealed, forsythia, crabcake, froth, louse, mercury, wallop, sander, bevel, icepick, morningstar, zephyr, doodle, quixotic, nudge, paste, riposte, drill, slather, spitoon, Irene, skip, fortify, mosquito

Things That Fortify

“In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” -August Sander

During an icepick moment, doodling.
Forsythia’s yellow bells.

A zephyr soft as froth.
At dawn, morningstar out your window.

Freddy Mercury.

For fun, missing the spittoon.
Skipping the urge for riposte.

Meditating on the bevel.
Observing the mosquito drill.

Any wallop, any louse.

Anything annealed.
Anything quixotic.
Anything slathered.

With your fork, nudging an ambrosial crabcake.

“Goodnight Irene.”
Pasting on the face of a queen.

Meg's words #3: quick, worry, speak, cake, sombrero, oyster, mask, porch, provide, pithy, ferry, tinker, surplus, overhead, scorch, pout, blaze, gape, expose, steamed, selfish
Back to School Prayer
Lord, provide me with pithy speech,
no gape in my blazer or unintentional
exposure. Make me as a cake on a sombrero
or a mask on an oyster: surplus,
quirky, quickly inspired. Provide me
freedom from scorched worry; allow pouts
to stay hinged on selfish mouths, unconsidered.
I pray for the illumination of the overhead bulb,
the sturdiness of well-built porch, the clarity
of the mapless tinker, the allure of the steamy
meal. Ferry me into endless waves with a lust
for new waters and a thirst for horizon.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Yes Woman

"For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin--real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way--something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective helped me to see that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way." - Alfred D'Souza

A few years ago, I had a revelation. I had been defining so much of who I was through what I was not. Consciously or not, I'd been saying "no" to many things. Or "maybe later."

I decided to turn that around. When's the time? Now. I just can't seem to get enough of trying new things. I've become a Yes Woman.

My recent firsts have included attending a boxing match, going to the horse races, learning to ski and snowshoe, attending numerous concerts (by new-to-me groups in new-to-me-venues), going to a three-day music festival, riding my bike 72 miles around Lake Tahoe, travelling alone throughout Italy and Spain, hiking 5 hours alone across a volcano in Hawaii, kayaking in the open ocean, teaching new classes ... and then there's been this summer. The summer of the Odyssey.

It all began Memorial Day Weekend when Dave and I went skiing. Yes, snow-skiing in May. The epic year of snow continued with another storm, so we went for it in Tahoe. On the heels of that came two months of travelling throughout the West: L.A., San Diego, Seattle, Alaska, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Here are some of the things this Odyssey has illuminated:

1. When people invite you, say yes. We stayed in the homes of 10 different sets of friends on our journey. There is nothing like drinking coffee together in the mornings with sleep-encrusted eyes, or tootling throughout their neighborhoods on bikes, or going to their favorite restaurants and theaters and places of worship, or hiking on their favorite trail, or visiting their child's classroom, or helping set up a party and raging together to really get to know the people in your lives. New experiences add a new layer of richness to relationships.

2. Boas make anything fun. You can't wear a boa without bringing out your inner diva in a silly, ironic way. And it's better when everyone's wearing them! Party stores are great places to buy boas and other accoutrements. I'm learning how to mix anything (like striped stockings, costume jewelry, funny hats) with my regular clothes. Do this, and you're a party in the making.

3. You don't have to go to Africa for safari. Okay, you won't see zebras and elephants, but in the pristine environments of Alaska, Yellowstone and--especially for us--the Grand Tetons, you can see all kinds of wild animals in their natural environments. We saw bears, elk, mountain goats, moose (a mama and her 1-week old baby), bald eagles, whales, bison. At times I imagined I experienced, if even for a few seconds, what early Native Americans and early settlers must have felt. We'd been warned that these areas would be very crowded in the summer, but we discovered it's not that difficult to be alone in vast swaths of nature just barely off the beaten paths.

4. A cruise is a great way to meet people from all over the world. We met people who live throughout Canada and the U.S., as well as England, India, Brazil and Australia. Spending time together on the boat and on shore brought many of these friendships into fruition. We now have invitations to come visit many of these places (see Item 1 above)! We also learned that the more eager, excited and positive we were about everything we were experiencing, the more we attracted people who are passionate about life.

5. Music is everywhere. We experienced live music wherever we went, which always elicited joy and sense of community. Musical events included singing with guitars in living rooms and on a boat, going to local clubs and outdoor venues to dance to live bands, and attending a free festival that happened to feature one of Dave's favorite musicians. Almost all of these events felt like family weddings, with the little kids twirling around, teenagers giggling on the dance floor, a few couples gliding around like pros, and people of all ages boogying to the beat of their own drum.

6. It's the journey, not the destination. Our methods of transportation included car, airplane, bus, numerous different types of boats, zipline...Okay, zipline may be pushing the definition of "transportation" but the point is that each method wasn't just about getting from Point A to Point B. Each one had its special aspects that reminded us to revel in the journey. In Tahoe, we nestled into our Subaru's heated seats--and as we drove it across four states, we appreciated our expansive view through its windows and our awareness of its all-wheel-drive Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang power. In Marina del Rey, we cruised the bay in our friends' boat and we explored La Jolla cove in kayaks--wandering on the water as travel. The cruise ship was a remarkable glass-and-steel transport that cradled us with gentle rocking at night. From a huge inflatable raft expertly handled by our guide down the Snake River, we watched the sun rise over the Tetons. With friends we rode bicycles along Venice Beach, and along the greenbelt of the Boise River in Idaho. And we flew across the canopy in Juneau on a zipline--meaning we were held aloft hundreds of feet by two cables. Talk about an exhilarating way to experience movement across time and space!

7. Continue the journey at home. Our travels may be over for the summer, but my sense of journeying through yes-land is not. The day we returned, we went to my cousin's wedding. She had asked me to read a passage at the event. My initial thought had been that reading Bible passages is not my forte, but I said yes anyway. Then she told me she wanted me to read a version of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Perfect. Sometimes these things snowball. Or perhaps a better way to put it is like attracts like. The day after my cousin asked me to be part of her wedding, a friend asked me to perform her wedding. Guess what I said? And so now I embark on the journey of discovering how to most meaningfully perform such an important task. I can feel the richness of the experience that has yet to happen. It's about reaching for the feeling. And then the manifestation matches. It's just like another part of the journey I'm embarking on in the next few weeks: Planning my fall classes. So many books. So many hours with students. So many possibilities. And it's not about reaching the end of the semester. It's about taking the journey there together.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Statistical Miracle

I like writing occasional poetry...not just poetry now and then, but poetry that marks an occasion. It's like being given an assignment. You have a purpose and a due date.

My most recent occasional poem was for Dave's birthday. I wrote him a birthday poem last year, as well as Valentine's Day poems last year and this year. I guess I'm in for it now.

Once I went to a talk by a Buddhist meditation leader. His topic was loss of a love, as in the break-up of a marriage, partnership or friendship. He was encouraging us to think about the fact that change is a given, and that people will always float in and out of our lives. When someone floats out, instead of grasping at them, think about this: There was a time we didn't know that person. There was a time when we existed, and they existed, separately.

It sounds simple. But I love to think about that. Not only does it help me in terms of loss but in terms of being in relationships. Thinking about our separateness somehow sweetens the fact that others people our lives. That others choose to be in our sphere. That others choose to love us.

And also this: There's the wonderful mystery of how we find others. There are almost 7 billion people on this planet. When we move into the sphere of others, it's a statistical miracle!

So that's what I was thinking about when I wrote this year's birthday poem for Dave.

Birthday Hymn

I envision scenes before we met,
the film reel of my imagination

reversed. A flight attendant
hands you tea. At a gas station

you pump gas into a car I've
never been in. There you are,

underwater, mantas flying by.
And now you walk a faraway

path near a cliff overlooking
an infinity of sea. Now you're

in your father's shop, checking
on something too distant for

me to detect. You were an early
baby, delicate. And once you

floated in the dark, honeyed
womb, and before that the blue

unknown. Today I praise your
storied body, infused with light

I praise the way you pour
into me, and I onto you. Life

is as minute as it is vast
Life is as random as it is designed.

As strangers perhaps we once passed
on the street, your hand brushing mine.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving Forward in Art, Music and Life

A year ago, I decided to leave therapy.

I had a wonderful therapist. I think she would have made a good friend (or is that form of projection?). But I realized that going every few weeks to sit and talk primarily about the past was beginning to sap me of energy.
I then realized this: focusing on the past, in whatever form, didn't make me feel good. That feeling was a signal that there was something "off" for me about being past-oriented. Instead, enjoying the moment and being excited for the future gave me energy. I love envisioning all kinds of amazing possibilities. What could happen next that would be great? Playing out possible scenarios in my mind felt so empowering, so evocative, so generative.

That's when it clicked: I love being a writer for this reason. I love imagining the possibilities. Sure, some of writing involves dredging up the past. But what's most fruitful for me is touching on the past not as a way to play it over and over--but as a way to create something new. Creation is the name of the game, baby. It's the life force.

For months I'd been taking notes on this idea, mulling it over in my mind, and finally a couple of months ago, I wrote a poem about leaving therapy. But it's about more that than that. In a way, it's about launching into my life. It's about taking the helm, about steering my ship.

Recently the poem appeared here, in MiPOesias, a fantastic online journal that includes audios of the poets reading their poems.

Other than writing, I've been concert-attending. My guy's favorite group, The Radiators, is retiring this year after 33 years of touring. They are an incredibly talented New Orleans group that creates a big dance party at each concert. We attended four shows in a row--yes four!--at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco--their last four West Coast shows.

Four nights, and they didn't repeat a single song. That's because they know a thousand songs, or so goes the lore. I think this is one fish-story that's not hyperbole. There's a double-entendre there for those in the know. (Radiators fans are called "fish-heads.") It was an incredible time that reminded me of the effervescent, transformative power of music. Love abounded. And of course, so did dancing. Too bad I didn't get to know this band until its last year of touring. It was clear that the true, long-time fans have created an amazing bond borne from years of celebrating life through this particular magical musical experience. Here's one of my favorite songs of theirs: "Sitting on Top of the World."

And other than concert-attending, I've been teaching. Today was the warmest day on campus in a long time. Sun dresses and shorts and sandals debuted. Students had that dreamy "it's almost summer vacation" look in their eyes. Did I say students? Teachers too. I felt a little cross-eyed today, in fact...not only because of the weather but because I've spent days on end grading papers. That's the way of the world: Students write 'em, we read 'em.

I said something in class today I've never said before. It's something most professors would probably never say. No, it wasn't a swear world (I've said those before). It was this: that sometimes it's nice to have no opinion. I said this because of the recent, quite divisive, ways I've been observing people deal with the recent Osama bin Laden kiilling. People are truly fighting over this. Friends are becoming enemies. Ironic, no? In that we're creating a new kind of war through argument. So it feels like a relief to stay out of it.

Mostly. There is part of me that feels like I should have an opinion. And not only that, that I should be voicing it. Having an opinion solidifies me as an intellectual. As a smart, informed person. Then again, if I'm truly going the route of being me without being concerned about what others think I should be, then shutting up has a lovely quality. In fact, the longer I mull (and don't mull) all this over, the freer I feel.

I'm good at rhetoric. I could argue many aspects of this and other issues, all rather convincingly. But my heart's not in it, so my head's staying out of it.

I know "no opinion" is the opposite of what most teachers try to instill in their students. I mean, how do you teach rhetoric without encouraging opinion? It's kind of strange because I do teach composition classes in which I'm teaching the persuasive and argumentative essays. But then, I find in my creative writing classes, I'm trying to beat the didacticism out of them. Why? Because rarely does preaching work in a poem. Or a short story. Or any work of art. Yes, there are exceptions. Generally, though, art requires more nuance. Art thrives on paradox. Oxymoron. Incongruity. Or at a minimum: Irony.

As Tolstoy said, "The best stories don't come from good versus bad, but good versus good."

Life, and art, are more varied, more complex, more fluid and more surprising than one beaten-down side to an argument. And arguing is certainly not worth losing friends over. Then again, what I'm saying here is probably an argument in and of itself. I suppose it's possible that someone might personally or Facebook-ily defriend me for my "I'm staying out of it" stance. Pushing against anything is a habit for many of us (a habit I'm working to ease out of).

I won't worry about all that, though. Maybe instead I'll focus on writing another poem. Perhaps I'll give myself an assignment: Write about recent public events and keep it complex. Instead of arguing, explore. And look not into the past, but into the future. Keep it juiced. Keep it life-giving.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Double Life

It's fun living two lives.

We are leasing a house in Tahoe for the ski season, and so we've been able to spend a lot of time in the mountains, show-shoeing and skiing.

Leasing a house is a great idea. If you want to spend a lot of time someplace, it's a good way to go. It's cheaper and cozier than hotels. And if you can share with others (as we have done, with another couple), the price is even better. And it's not just about the price; it's about spending time with friends, cooking together, shoveling snow together, drinking wine and playing the game of Life with whatever rules you feel like creating.

It's nice to arrive at your travel destination, only to be reminded that you are to reside in a place that already has your clothes in the closet and shampoo in the shower and champagne in the fridge.

The best part for me is the contrast: the Valley vs. the Mountains. City vs. Nature. Dry hills vs. Snowy mountains. Running vs. Skiing. Professor Kate vs. Ski Bunny Kate.
Both/And (not Either/Or).
Speaking of which, I was just talking to a friend on the phone tonight about living the "Both/And" life. She is a woman in her 70s who travels widely, is writing the next of her many books, and who does yoga and windsurfs. She always affirms for me that life is about making a decision to live big, to be free, and to love.

For a long time, I've known at some level that our fundamental choices are to a) live in love, or b) in hate. Now I see that in a broader way: to allow, or to resist. "Living big" is about allowing. It's about saying yes. It's about enjoying the nature of the moment, and about being excited for the future. It's about leaning into freedom.

It's about going to a Bohemian Festival with a group of friends, when you have no idea what you're getting into.
It's about continuing to expand, to grow, no matter your age or condition. My septuagenarian friend just founded a publishing company. I (one and a half years shy of 50) have been learning to ski (as I attest in my last entry).

Flying (or struggling) down a snow-encrusted hill is visceral, symbolic, empowering, expansive.
And there's something about living two lives that is helping to shine a spotlight on the ways in which my "other life" is empowering and expansive--my city life, my snow-less life. For instance, I'm realizing that a corollary to skiing down a hill is standing behind a podium in a class of more than 60 students. Who knows what questions they will ask? How they will respond to a lecture or presentation? It's all about being prepared, then going with the flow.
Through the contrast-lens of my mountain life, I see my Professor Kate life anew. Today, I was especially moved by reading a paper by one of my students who was abandoned by her father. The descriptions of all the pain, followed by the years of mistrusting men, were poignant. But the best part was the ending: her realization that her father is a fallible human being, and she wasn't going to pin her happiness in life on anyone else's actions. She made a choice to open her heart, and love other men.
Yes, I've fallen on the slopes, my skis betraying me and whipping out from under me. Each time I get up and decide to love the mountain (even if I'm temporarily pissed off at it!). See what I mean by the symbolism? We've all been betrayed and betrayers at sometime in our lives. We can focus on the injustice, on the things we "would have done differently", or we can focus on where we're going next.
We can focus on bitterness, or we can love the opportunity to grow.
Last time I fell skiing, I loved the realization I could get back up. That the snow was soft. That the sky was broad and blue. That I was living a "peak experience" as my friend who's in her 70s says she is now in her life.
And I loved knowing that soon I'd pull my gloves from my tired hands and grasp a beer in a bar--an warm indoor world contrasted with the cold outdoors, surrounded by friends who live at least two lives too.