Thursday, May 31, 2012

"We live at the edge of the miraculous." - Henry Miller

There's something delicious about being on the edge of things. In a few days we leave for almost a month on our journeys, and I'm relishing my home life in my mode of adieu

I inhale the sea air with a little extra fervor. I appreciate the way the light comes into the house through the floor-to-ceiling windows.  I cherish the purple tulips on my desk--which is finally cleared of to-do stacks of items. 
Dave always fills our house with flowers.

That's another thing:  when you're on the edge of leaving, you must finish things off.  I like to clear space for what's to come.  Grades in.  Books ordered for fall.  Laundry completed.  Blog entry finished.  Eye exam done, new contacts in  hand.

Next comes packing. 

I am challenging myself to keep it simple.  No more over-packing.  I will pick my very favorite things to wear--and just wear them over and over.  No opening my suitcase at the end of the month to things I never wore popping out like Jack-in-the-boxes.  I'll take advantage of limited space and pack the things I love the most.  It will help make living out of a suitcase all ease and flow. 

The non-example.

Also, I want to actually have some extra space in my suitcase for things I buy.  We're not  big shoppers, but we do have buying goals in Mexico:  Wedding outfits.  I figured Mexico City might be a good place to find a sundress for me, and a guayabera for Dave that's in similar colors.  Perfect wedding attire for a barefoot-in-the-Hawaiian-sand wedding.

So here we are.  Home, poised for adventure. Wings unfurling. I'm savoring the feeling. 

"Come to the edge, he said.  They said:  We are afraid.  Come to the edge, he said.  They came.  He pushed them and they flew."  - Apollinaire

My friend Tiffany just announced she has accepted a job in Korea.  I'm sure she's in a heightened state, feeling the edge pulse between the familiar and the new. 

This morning she posted a poem on her Facebook page that moved me.  The poem is not only about that delicious in-between space; it's about all that preceded it.  Life is always in flux.  The edge is actually an illusion because we are always moving and changing.  We think an earthquake happens suddenly but the ground is always shifting at subterranean levels.

"I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over.  Out on the edge  
 you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center."  - Kurt Vonnegut

It's often poignant, scary and exhilarating when we are aware that we are on the edge. 

Over there, we think, is the unknown. 

But that is true every moment.  The future is always the unknown.  So it's the awareness of the edge that highlights these truths about life:

Change is constant.

New beginnings are always available to us.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,

Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

~ John O'Donohue

"It is at the edge of a petal that love waits." William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." Stephen King

When I walked out of the library today, I suddenly felt like I used to as a kid:  amazed that for no money, they let me take out a pile of books.  It's like the thrill of stealing, without the bad juju of actual crime.

While in the library, I relished the feeling of walking through the stacks. Book spines promised whole worlds. I breathed in that nostalgic musty scent, as pleasing to me as ocean air.  For the first time I consciously registered that the mustiness intensifies as you work your way up--probably because the older books are stored on the higher floors.

It had been a while since I'd entered the library armed with a list of books I wanted to check out.  But summer's almost here and in addition to all the travel and wedding adventures, I want to read.  And read.  And read!  My list includes a swath of books chosen for various reasons:

1.  The Enormous Room by e.e. cummings.  I've always appreciated his poetry and have meant for years to get around to reading his only novel.  I now have the library's copy in my hot little hand.  If you want to read the book online for free, click here.

The mere brute pleasure of reading is the sort of pleasure 
a cow must have in grazing. - Gilbert K. Chesterson

2.  The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. I read the opening sentence in "100 Best First Lines of Novels" and not only was I captivated by the novel's start, I'd never even heard of the title or the author.  When I found the book in the stacks today, it was surrounded by at least 30 other books written by Macaulay.  Of course I had to google her immediately, and I discovered that she was a prolific writer in the early 20th century and that, among other interesting facts, Rupert Brook plagiarized her, and she had an affair with a priest.

Is God oval-shaped?

3.  I also checked out God-Shaped Hole by Tiffanie DeBartolo which, when you open the top red cover, you discover has a hole in it that encircles the title beneath.  Cool marketing.  I don't remember why I had DeBartolo's book on my list, but someone must have recommended it to me.  That's a killer title so I want to give it a try.

There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves. - Will Rogers

4.  Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch.    A friend told me my writing reminds her of Crouch's, so I'm going to read her and decide whether or not that's a compliment.

Non-library books on my summer reading list include:

5.  Wicked Hill by my friend and colleague Ed Sams.  I'm reading it in manuscript form so I can write a glowing blurb, which it no doubt will deserve!

Subtitles are de rigueur these days.  This one promises a salient promise.

6.  Some books I'm considering using in my teaching next year:

 I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. - Jorge Luis Borges

Smith and Mapplethorpe when they were just kids.

7.   Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls.  My sister gave me this book, and Dave wolfed it down right away, followed by Walls' best-seller The Glass Castle.  While The Glass Castle is a memoir, Horses is billed as a "real-life novel."  I like books that tweak categories.

8.  Just Kids by Patti Smith, another book that Dave has scooped me on.  He was riveted as he read, making me want to pluck it from his hands.  I've long been a fan of stories that celebrate love relationships between creative people (I aspired to create such a vibe in For the May Queen).  I used to teach a Queer Arts course at UCSC and became fascinated by the way Mapplethorpe challenged the line between art and pornography.

What's on your summer reading list?

I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem 
about everything.  - Steven Wright

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wherever you focus, there you are.

Once I was entrenched in a job I hated.  From my office, I cried on the phone to a friend about how miserable I was.

She said to me:

"You worked really hard to get there.  You read the right things.  Wrote and published in that field.  Got the right degree.  Thought about it.  Talked about it!  Seems to me like you're powerful.  Seems to me like wherever you put your focus, there you are.  Imagine if you focused your energy on what you love?"

First I thought:  Shit.
Then I thought:  Oh my god.  She's absolutely right.

Those words inspired me to make a change.  Even though I already had a Ph.D in another field, I enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing.  I dove into reading and writing, relishing in it like a dog enthusiastically rolling around in a stinky spot on the beach.  I squeezed every drop of learning and inspiration out of all my classes.  I didn't have a grand scheme.

I just wanted to love life again.

Now I'm the author of four books, and I teach creative writing. 

Over the years, I have become a woo-woo believer in the power of energy.  I think of life as a moving stream.  When we try and try and try to paddle upstream, we sweat like a bugger but don't get very far.  But when we go with the flow, we are in synch with life's rhythms.  We can harness the power of the stream; we can enjoy the moment and be delighted about what might appear around the next bend.  To me, going with the flow means tapping into what we love.  What we love is the essence of who we are.  When we are lined up with our true essence, we are at our most powerful.

It's also about this:  We suffer when we face the direction we don't want to go.

In other words, it was "upstream" of me to keep focusing on how much I hated my job.  I didn't want to be in my job, and I kept talking about that, thinking about that, dreaming (nightmaring) about that.  Once I allowed myself to turn around and face the "I love writing" direction, everything began to unfold.  The details of what that direction meant appeared around the bend.  And the next. And the next.

Of course this is a life lesson to learn again and again.  When I went through a bad break-up of a fifteen year relationship, I wasn't really free until I began to focus on what I wanted, not what I thought I'd lost or how angry I was at being deceived.

At first the focus was on feeling:  I want to be happy!  I want to embrace life!  And then details began to come in focus:  I want a lover who is fun and who is as devoted to me as I am to him.  I want to surround myself with uplifting people who expand my world.  I want to travel, to explore new places.  I want to love my body, my mind, and my spirit.  And if I'm going to change the world, I want it to be because I authentically inspire, not because I attempt to motivate.

I believe that wherever I put my focus, there I am.  The "proof" is what's around the bend--that what I've been focusing on has been proliferating in my life:

1) Finals (this week):  What I describe above led me to a new job, which I've now held for seven years.  I love my job not only because of what I get to teach but also because of the flexibility of my schedule (on campus three times a week) and all the time off (summer's almost here!).  The semester is ending with finals this week.  It's been a stellar semester of teaching creative writing, literature of our campus' visiting writers, and new book/film combos in my Film & Literature course (including The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Kite Runner film, novel and graphic novel).  Most interesting and challenging was Kiss of the Spider Woman, an amazing novel that reinvents what a novel can be. The film is pretty great too.
William Hurt won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman

2) Blues fest (end of May):  I'm a kind of weirdo savant when it comes to remembering music lyrics, and I've always known music has the power to transform my mood--to manifest pure happiness into my spirit.  Dave, though, has expanded my enjoyment of music into a wide array of new venues and types of music.  Soon we're going with a crew of friends to dance all day on the lawn in Aptos to the Doobie Brothers (whom I haven't seen live since 1980), Joan Osborne, Los Lobos, and more. 

Seeing the Doobie Brothers with Nancy in summer 1980.

3) So Cal (June):  So many friends, so much time to play together!

4) Mexico City (June):  I've written before about saying YES when people invite us to spend time in their worlds.  So we've accepted our friend Paul's offer and will be hanging out with him, exploring, eating, salsa-ing, and doing whatever else strikes our fancy in the place he loves to live.

5) Family reunion (July):  Every year about fifty of us congregate in the Bay Area to celebrate our connection as family.  This year will be even more exciting because there's a new baby in the mix, little Kennedy (born to my cousin Johnny and his wife Michelle).

Our wedding location

6) Hawaii wedding and honeymoon (July-August):   Going with the (lava) flow has made this a low-stress wedding-planning event.  Yes, I said low-stress's really possible! Once we realized we'd be in Hawaii at the same time as Dave's sister and brother-in-law, we decided it would be a good place and time to get married.  On a whim, we sent out an evite to some family and friends to see if anyone might like to join us for an informal wedding on the beach, followed by dinner at a restaurant.  Next thing we knew, more than thirty people had bought plane tickets!  My Kona friend then told me about an amazing, new beachfront venue, the Lava Lava Beach Club.  It just opened and is the perfect place for a barefoot wedding at sunset, followed by an outdoor reception, including Hawaiian music, food, and a hula dancer!  All these details have been falling into place in a way that really makes me feel to the bone the power of the moving stream.

It works!

7) Preside over a San Jose wedding (end of August):  Focus on weddings, and more wedding-love appears.  It all started when my cousin asked me to read a poem at her wedding last summer.  Then I caught the bouquet.  Then my friends Daisy and Tung asked me to perform their wedding ceremony.  Online, I became a minister in about 10 minutes. (I love the democratic flair of that!)  As Daisy and I were exploring writing scripts for the non-religious ceremony and trying to find fitting poems to include, a student of mine just happened to mention to me that she has performed dozens of weddings.  In fact, she was writing a book about it!  She emailed me a plethora of materials, including a fabulous selection of poems that Daisy was thrilled to receive.  (Um....wherever you put your energy, there you are.)

8)  Celebrate my Jubilee.  My 50th birthday is this year, and Dave is already drumming up fun (secret) stuff.  It's been so fun to see how all my friends who are turning 50 are celebrating this milestone.  Clearly, 50 is the new 21.

9)  Caribbean Jam Cruise. 
Us to friends:  Want to go?
Friends:  Hell yeah!
So now it's on.  Another event that isn't planned but inspired.  The details will unfold around the bend.  No stress, just down-streamin'!

10)  JazzFest.  Dave's been a million times but we've never been together.  So what better way to celebrate his 55th next May?  Music!  History!  Celebration!  Love!  Dare I say it again?  Wherever you focus, there you are...

How about focusing on dancing in wild colors?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Poem of Fear, Poem of Love

"There are things in that wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will."

In response to Meg Pokrass' most recent challenge to write a piece using a set of words she posted on Facebook, I wrote the poem below.

Even though I've been writing all my life, I am still  amazed at how playing with random words prompts the mind to weave patterns.  We can't help but make meaning.  It's who we are.  It wasn't until I was writing the last two stanzas that the connection to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" came to mind.

Then I could see how the poem is exploring ideas of fear:  fear about trying to fit into your "required" category, fear of change, fear fostered by dwelling in the past.  The poem allows me to see the absurdity of fear--and how we are, in fact, freer than we think (to paraphrase Michel Foucault).

(Word list:  pick, kitchen, frosting, divorce, hood, theory, bone, lipstick, change, alley, shadows, chastened, hug, swerve, hall, curtains)

The Yellow Wallpaper

Once there was no divorce.  Mom
stood in the kitchen, frosting a cake

to the bone.  Once there was no
change.  We were chastened by fake

fingernails, by too-bright lipstick.
How could we know bad from good

or pick out shadows from light?  Even the
curtains hung like an executioner’s hood.

In theory, we swerved from all alleys
and walked quickly down halls, skimming

the walls.  All the wallpaper was sallow
and soft as our skin, made for skinning. 

I also wrote a very different kind of poem, an occasional poem for Dave's birthday.  I much prefer living in love than fear, in yes than no.  And this poem says that to me, to him, to you.

A Life of Yes

When I said yes to you I said yes
to life.  Yes let’s move in.  Yes

take me down a snowy mountain,
yes love my body, a fountain

of pleasure.   Yes let’s odyssey.
Yes let’s take the world’s seas

and trees and flowers and animals
and people, people, people fully

into our hearts.  Yes at the bay
I accept the blue stone.  All todays

are ours.  Yes:  husband and wife.
Let’s love each other, and this life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How to be a Chick Magnet

Taking a walk on the beach, I discovered a partially-burned orange safety cone sticking out of the sand.  A group of revelers had no doubt theorized about whether or not it would ignite, and the answer had been:  kind of. I picked it up, along with a beer bottle, a half-page of a newspaper, and a red party cup then tossed them in a nearby garbage can.  An athletic young woman walking two eager dogs happened by at that moment and said to me, “That’s a beautiful thing, that you’re cleaning up the beach.” 
So let this be a lesson:  If you want to be a chick- or dude-magnet on the beach, you don’t have to have perfect abs.  Just pick up some trash.

Here are some other lessons I’ve learned as I’ve embarked on my do-one-new-thing-every-day New Year’s Resolution: 

Use what you have.  I find myself actually opening that can of soup or jar of spiced peaches that have been gathering dust in the pantry.  Or reading that book or blog I’ve been meaning to get around to.  Or dragging a rarely-worn shirt out of the back of the closet and coupling it with unworn earrings I got as a gift two years ago.  The other day I wore purple tights to work, letting my inner poet usurp my academic mien for the day.   Wearing new combinations has made getting dressed for work less like drudgery and more like putting on a fun costume. 

Cherimoya won't annoy ya.
Everything is new.  I’m not only using my stuff more, I’m “using” my environment more:  taking a side-street to see where it goes, walking into a café I usually pass by, ordering a new food or drink.  This makes me feel a bit like I’m always on vacation, because when I travel every café and street is “new.”  And I’m very often trying new foods and drinks when traveling—so why not notice what new things are right under my nose here?  Just yesterday I tried cherimoya at a produce stand and immediately felt like I was transported to a tropical land.

French kiss
It’s fun to be bold.  “Have you ever tried Framboise?” a woman at the bar asked me as I ordered a beer from the bartender.  When I said I hadn’t, she handed me her glass and said, “Taste this.”  I was a little taken aback that a stranger would offer me a sip from her cup.  What if she was sick, or had a raging cold sore?  I said “No thanks.”  But the minute I said “no,” I wished I’d said “yes.”  I’d blown the chance to perform the double-axle of newness:  tasting a new drink, and from the cup of a stranger. Why be fearful?  I had kissed strangers in bars more times than I’d care to admit—and I wouldn’t taste someone’s drink?  Besides, wasn’t she some kind of angel planted before me, supporting me in my New Year’s Resolution?  I wanted to tell her I’d changed my mind.  But my first thought was that I’d look stupid.  My next thought was, so what?  Trying new things means putting yourself out there.  It means not being afraid to be embarrassed.  Or disappointed.  So I turned to her and said, “I’ve changed my mind.  I’d love to taste it.  That’s very nice of you to offer.”  She handed over her glass—and I sipped the nectar of the gods. As a berry fanatic but French-language idiot, I hadn't known until I googled it that "framboise" means "raspberry" in French.  Lips to this seductive glass of deliciousness, it was like being French-kissed in a bar (once again). I blushed.  As I handed her back her glass, she smiled knowingly. 

People rock.  The above is a good example.  Here’s another:  I decided to climb over a railing to get home from the beach on a new route.  A group of guys in their twenties was hanging out near the railing, discussing whether or not they should go over it.  As I began to clamber over, one of the guys said, “Do you always come this way?”  I said, “Nope, it’s my first time today.”  He laughed and said, “Cool”—then reached out his hand to help me balance.  I almost declined, but then I took his hand, thanking him.  His friends ribbed him a little for being “such a gentleman,” and I giggled all the way home.

Presence comes with awareness.  As I do new things, I’m becoming more aware of my habits:  the foods I eat, the routes I take, the ways I decline or accept others’ offers and words, and the ways I think.  I like being more aware of my patterns.  This way, I can consciously decide if those habits work well for me, rather than merely defaulting to them.  Doing something new every day is like turning on my psychic windshield wipers.  I’m seeing more clearly.  I’m learning how to focus more strongly.  And to be more present.  
Back on the horse a month after "the incident."

Everything’s an experience.  When I fell on the ski slopes and couldn’t get up because my knee was severe in pain, after screaming for a minute or two, I realized I had a choice.  I could freak out, or I could chill.  I could resist this whole thing, or see it as an experience.  Seriously:  at that moment my New Year’s Resolution came to mind, and I decided I would try something new-to-me in this very challenging and painful circumstance:  I would relax!  I would watch this new experience unfold.  As the medics hauled me away, I marveled at how I was able to watch the blue sky as I glided down the hill.  In the medical hut, I appreciated the care and skill of the medic.  Later, I appreciated everything Dave did, from helping me hobble around to bringing me food.  I kept saying to myself, “Some good is going to come from this.  I wonder what it is?”  Long story short, my knee healed quickly.  And the good that came out of it is this:  a deeper knowing that I have a choice in how I respond to everything that happens in my life. 

Life is abundant.  There are so many new things to try!  Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve done for the first time since January 1:   
  • Drank a “London fog” at Peet’s (black tea, soy milk, and vanilla syrup =  yummy).
  • Went stand-up paddling.
  • Instead of waiting on the curb for the bus, I stepped into a nearby bar and ended up singing Whitney Houston songs with a Honduran guy.
  • Played Frisbee on the beach. 
  • Swam in the cold ocean in a wetsuit. 
  • Perched myself on a log, and later on a tall rock, to survey the beach. 
  • Tried a total-body workout on TV (ouch, my glutes!).
  • Held a handgun. 
  • Learned Pedro, a card game. 
  • Accepted a ride home with a student who happens to live around the corner from me.
  • Listened to classical music on my headset on the bus. 
  • Went to a goodbye party for a former student headed to the Peace Corps. 
  • Ate red snapper cooked in coconut oil.
  • Offered my front-row bus seat to a woman carrying a lot of stuff.
  • Taught Kiss of the Spider Woman. 
  • Looked up “celerity” (one of those words I always stumble across but had neglected to look means "swift").
  • Went to the top floor of the library and sat at a gorgeous granite, continent-shaped table. 
  • Saw several bands for the first time, each in new venues (Strange on the Range at St. James Infirmary in Reno; The Mermen at the Jub Jub in Reno; and Hot Buttered Rum at Don Quixotes in Felton). 
  • Did leg bends while brushing my teeth (I was desperate; it was almost midnight and I had yet to do a new thing that day!).
  • Trusted my intuition about introducing ourselves to a couple who had great energy--and as a result have formed a friendship with two really great people.
  • Saw a gorgeous IMAX about the beauty of coral reefs. 
  • Graded papers in a café down the street. 
  • When I stretched out on a patch of grass I usually pass by, a cat sauntered over to nuzzle me. 
  • Discovered a bunch of new blogs about people who live traveling the world.  (Two of my favorites are Family on Bikes and Pearce on Earth.)
  • Almost turned away when I thought I’d stared at two monarchs in the backyard “long enough” but then gave myself more time to gaze.