Thursday, April 25, 2013

Teaching and the Butterfly Effect

Chaos Theory tells us that the movement of a butterfly's wings can affect weather patterns on the other side of the world.  Henry Adams offered similar idea when he said that "teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence ends."

Here's a potent example that happened, poignantly, just a few weeks before I leave teaching:

Kirubel and me
First:  A woman I met twenty years ago in a poetry class--Carmen Gimenez Smith--was coming to our campus as a visiting writer.

As so:  I taught her memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, in which Carmen explores her mother's interior life by writing her mother's imaginary journal entries.

And then:  I assigned my students to write three journal entries as though they were written by one of their parents.

And then:  When my student Kirubel started to write from her father's point of view, she realized that she knew his stories, but not his feelings.

And so:  She sat down with her father to talk about his rough childhood in Ethiopia with a cruel step-mother.

As he talked:  He began to illuminate his feelings more keenly.  While he could not excuse his step-mother's abuse, he realized she had been so young--only 19--when she became his step-mother.  And in short order she gave birth to eight more children.  As he spoke, he began to feel like he wanted to call his mother who was now old and ill.  He hadn't talked to her in years.

As so:  He called her. 

And:  Across continents, they talked for a long time.  Son told Mother how he felt.  Mother told son she'd always wanted to ask for forgiveness but didn't know how.

Later:  Kirubel's father told her he felt lighter, freer.  He was glad that he and his mother had talked about something that had been weighing on them both all these years.

And three days later:  His mother died.

And so:  The butterfly flapped its wings in a poetry class.  Twenty years later--through the empathic gift of stories--a daughter has connected more deeply to her father.  And her father can rest knowing there is nothing left unsaid.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How I Spent $476.50 Selling My Books (aka: it can be expensive to ignore your inner voice)

As a follow-up to the piece about giving away my table, here's another story about stuff:

I had a stack of books I felt I "should" sell.

Installation of falling books by Alicia Martin

That "should" should have been a red flag.  Usually when I feel I should do something, I have my psychic undies in a bunch.

As part of getting ready to leave home and jobs to travel the world, Dave and I have been slowly but surely paring down our already pretty pared-down life.  

Being a book maven, I have books I've carried with me from move to move to move.  Geez, they are heavy.  Yes, each one has special meaning to me.  And I guess, suddenly, I was thinking they were valuable.  And I must have been  unconsciously equating value with money.

So I called the fabulous Logos bookstore to make an appointment.  The morning of the appointment, I woke feeling like I didn't want to lug those books downtown.  I was tempted to cancel the appointment.

I started thinking about how I'd been putting aside special books that I felt "belonged" with certain friends:  the signed Gloria Steinem to the most flourishing feminist, the stack of memoirs to my nonfiction professor friend, the piles of poetry books to my poet laureate pal, the self-help stack to my friend who wants to change her mind and her life...

But for some reason, these other boxes I felt I had to sell.

If I'd listened to my inner voice, I would have cancelled the appointment and let the books sit in their boxes for a while until I was inspired to a) sell them, b) give them to students or friends, or c) donate them.

But, no, I had an appointment.

So I dragged those damn boxes into the trunk of the car.  I couldn't find a spot close to the store, so I parked illegally in the back.  Tension gives you tunnel vision:  instead of noticing Logos had dollies conveniently placed at the door, I hand-dragged each box into the store, one by one, sweating like Richard Nixon debating JFK.

The polite bookseller gave me a receipt and told me he could have my total in the afternoon.

The afternoon?  I'd have to come back?

By now I could feel I was entirely out of alignment with my inner peace.  What would have been really, really good for me would have to find Davis Sedaris book, sit in one of the store's comfy chairs, and laugh my way to feeling better.  Or get an herbal tea and walk through downtown in search of cute dogs and kids.

Instead, I got back in my car.  Good thing you can't get a DUI for driving under the influence of spiritual pandemonium.

Because I'd parked illegally, I was now blocked in.  Thus, I began to eke my car down a narrow alley that I was sure led to the next street.  Indeed it did; and the street was blocked by a huge truck with its ramp down, in unloading mode.  I was in such a tight spot I felt like I couldn't back up.  So I decided to try to get around this massive truck by squeezing by it via the sidewalk.

As I attempted this maneuver, I heard a sickening squuuueeeeeeeeeeeeee of metal on metal:  the right side of my car scraping against a light pole.

God knows why even in this intense state of stupid resistance, the universe provides me with a guardian angel.  A scruffy guy--he may have been homeless--guided me out of the mess, helping me to back up and get to the street.

I'd love to say this was my wake-up call.  That I had an enlightened epiphany that it's infinitely better to trust myself than to fight against the grain of my natural, loving, peaceful, abundant inner light.

I know I have a choice about how to respond to life:  Freak out.  Or get curious.

But apparently you don't just learn that and know it forever more.

I freaked out.  I cried.  I railed against fate.  I came home and attacked Dave, my beloved husband.

Once my tantrum simmered down, I took some deep breaths and did what would have been in my best interest to do that morning (after cancelling the book-selling appointment):  I went for a long walk on the beach.

A lot of thoughts went through my mind:  how when I would do something like dent a car as a teenager, I was worried about getting in trouble; how resisting getting rid of my books might point to unconscious fears I have about leaving home; how I identify so strongly with the written word that shedding books with no "return value" might be making wonder about my own value...

Then I sat in the sand and and watched the white peak of the waves arc then flatten into eternal blue, again and again.  I thanked my mind for trying to get to the bottom of it, and then I asked for some non-thinking time.  There I sat.  Just me.  Being.  Not figuring anything out.  Not resisting.  Just allowing the moment to unfold.

Later that afternoon, Logos gave me $23.50 for the six books they wanted.  The rest, they said, I could take back, or they would donate them to Goodwill.  I let them go.

Weeks later, we paid the $500 deductible to fix the car damage.

I got off easy.  It cost me only $476.50 to re-learn the lesson I learned as a kid:  The best way to live is not to force yourself up-river but instead to row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

After all, life is but a dream.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Table

My family sat around a table just like this one for all our meals for about 25 years.  Mom made dinner almost every night (always with at least two different colored vegetables), and having dinner together was a family ritual. 

We each had our "spot" at the table.  Sometimes after eating, we'd all get up and move to the next chair over.  We'd then "be" that other person:  talking the way they talked, exaggerating their mannerisms.  We'd all end up laughing and laughing.

Eventually I inherited this table.  Now that Dave and I are packing up our house to go on a worldwide travel adventure, we are getting rid of certain items, including this table.

In response to my Craigslist ad to give it away free to someone who'd be willing to come pick it up, a man who runs a sober living home for men responded.

I told him he could have it, and thanked him--telling him that I know some people whose lives have been changed by the kind of work he does. 

He wrote me back and said he does this work because he has been "blessed in abundance."  He added, "I used to live in a converted chicken coop and wanted to die.  I have been overly compensated in life and have been clean/sober for over 23 years." And he said without the love of spirit and giving back, he would be "dead or incarcerated certainly."

What a beautiful thought:  A group of men who are working to re-connect with their inherent goodness; a group of men getting their lives back on track; a group of men sitting around this table as my family did, in communion of food and laughter and love.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Save Money Overseas

Did you know that many credit cards charge 3% for foreign transactions?

We just discovered that our beloved mileage card does just that, which will not do when we're abroad.

If we need to pay by credit card to see this in Sri Lanka, we won't be paying an extra 3%!

Thank gawd for the internet.  In seconds with a quick Google search I found lists of credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees, including one that gives you mileage and waives the yearly card fee the first year.

Viola!  We now have a card devoted to purchases in other countries.

For more of my travel tips, check this out.

Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Write a Memoir

Image from one of my favorite books of all time.

Dear Dr. Kate,
What do you recommend to writers who are working on memoirs?  I’ve been putting down ideas for some time but feel like I don’t know how to continue.
Neophyte Writer

Dear Neophyte Writer,

1.  Read a bunch of memoirs.

Read them not just as a reader but as a writer.  Pay attention to the variety of ways these writers linger on the most important moments, dig into scenes, reflect, move from chapter to chapter, and organize their stories.  You’ll see there are so many ways to do these things.  Books are your best teachers.  Here are a few of my favorites:
Just Kids (Patty Smith)
The Journal of a Solitude (May Sarton)
The Cactus Eaters (Dan White)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Tales of a Female Nomad (Rita Gelman)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Nick Flynn)
She’s Not There (Jennifer Finney Boylan)
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)
Death in Slow Motion (Eleanor Cooney)
The Birdhouse Chronicles (Cathleen Miller)
Jesus Land (Julia Scheeres)
Paula (Isabele Allende)
This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff)
Little Princes (Conor Grennan)
The Glass Castle (Jeanette Walls; I recommend you read her “true life novel” Half Broke Horses first)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)
Any book by David Sedaris
There are a zillion more.  With a brief Googling, you can find ones you’ll love and can learn a lot from.
Also, some books about writing that you might like:  Writing Down the Bones(Natalie Goldberg), Wild Mind (Natalie Goldberg), and Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott).  If you feel “stuck,” read Writing the Natural Way (Gabriele Rico) and do the exercises in each chapter.

2.  Keep writing.

Find the juiciest moments, the most important scenarios, the meatiest stories–and dig into them.  Linger in them, and write and write.  Develop full scenes with sensory detail.  Help us feel like we are there.  Riff on connections to other memories, thoughts, reflections, feelings, mixed feelings, desires. Memoir is a rich combination of scene and reflection.  Help us see the locations and people keenly,so we can experience your life through your eyes. Also, whenever there’s an important moment coming, build up to it; develop the tension and conflict fully.  USE the books above to pay close attention to how all these writers do these things.

3.  Consider joining a writing group, or create one of your own.

I’m part of a writing group that meets once a month.  We share pages we’re working on, giving each other critical feedback and support.

4.  Consider starting a blog, in which you post short segments.

This way, you can “test drive” portions of your book.  And then you’re also building a readership for your book when it’s published.

5.  When it comes time to think about publishing, have a look at what I’ve said about:

6.  Enjoy the process. 

As Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Monday, April 8, 2013

I'm Already Traveling the World, Kind Of

Here's a sample of what's going on in my mind in the countdown to our Great Adventure, aka, The Next Phase of Our Lives:

* OMG, we’re going to see kangaroos, wallabies, dolphins, crocodiles, and beer-drinking Aussies in their natural habitats!

* Giants World Series Champions tee-shirt:  My go-to item of clothing anywhere in the world.

* Visas for India and Australia:  Check.

* Google:  Do you need a visa for Hong Kong?  Um... And how long, exactly, can you stay in Europe?

* Will a month in Paris make me want to live there permanently?

* Food to finish off in the house:  Raw almonds (extra bag was hidden in the back of the pantry).   Popsicles (why, exactly, do we have four boxes in the freezer)?  Costco-size frozen bag of berries (smoothie alert).

* Sell or store our furniture?

* New massive suitcases:  Too big or too small?

* Santa Cruz Warriors tickets:  Check. (We can't leave Santa Cruz before going to one of the home-team games.)

* Sitting around the house feels so good.  Like, way good.  Like, better than it has in years.  It's like my body is in a chrysalis, prepping for the big reveal.

* Which poems should I use for the writing lesson I’ll be teaching high schoolers in Chennai, India?

* Call for a massage appointment; don’t waste that birthday gift certificate.

* I guess we'll be throwing away a bazillion bottles of half-used condiments.

* So many poetry books:  give to my office-mate Sally, Poet Laureate par excellence.

* What totally unimaginable astonishments will eyes-wide-open bring?  Do I have enough boxes of contacts?

* OMG, we’re going to see elephants in their natural habitats!  

* Teeth cleaning:  Check. 

* Get SCUBA certified, or just rock the snorkeling?

* These orange deck chairs are hankering to live with our neighbors.

* If someone from India watched a Broadway musical for the first time, would it seem as familiar and yet strange as Bollywood seems to me?

* Immunizations?!

* These clothes that have been hanging in my closet that I never wear:  Goodwill.  Good riddance.

* Yoga in India?  Will it take me to a whole new physical and spiritual plane?  Will I still be totally incapable of doing the full lotus?

* My softest jeans are going to see the world.

* I have a huge crush on my new HD Kindle and its sweet soft white case with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard—my little book-writing, blog-posting, web-surfing, book-reading, movie-watching road-companion goddess.  

* Will three months in Tahoe make me want to live there permanently?

* At least one more ride on the Giant Dipper—ideally with my sister, nieces and nephew.

* What will it be like to be in Hong Kong at the home of my friend Kathy, whom I haven’t seen in more than 20 years?  She's a momma now.

* Why do I love saying “Cape Cod”?  Must be the alliteration and spondaic meter.  After July, I will have a whole mass of images to accompany the sound.

* Uggs and Tevas, FTW.

* Will a month in San Diego make me want to move there permanently?

* AT&T, PG&E, cable company, credit card company, bank, post office…

* Purple dragon statue:  perfect gift for our Australian friend Mark’s 90-year-old mother, who apparently loves Asian-themed tchotchkes.

* Will Mark, who is a concert pianist, serenade us every day?  If I beg him?

* Who will we meet who will rock our worlds? 

* Waterproof money belts:  Check.

* Will a year traveling the globe make me want to live there permanently?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

How It Is

"When something ends, let it," says Steve Ross.  "It is nature of this world."

Sometimes it's easy to forget that change is constant.  But when you're on the edge of major change like we are, you can't forget it.

In 55 days our movers will haul away all of our stuff to long-term storage.  That night, we will hop on a plane for L.A.  Two days later, we're off to Australia--the starting point of our world-wide adventure.

I love Santa Cruz.  And knowing we are leaving has brought out an extra sweetness to this place.  I focus more intently on the waves at our beach.  I notice how the egrets at the shoreline hop around in a way that's both awkward and elegant.  I find myself gazing at the redwood walls of our home as though to memorize their texture.

As I sit here writing, I revel in the smell of roasting vegetables and steak that Dave is cooking for dinner, and I feel in my bones the pleasure of our evening rituals.  I've always loved our Tempurpedic mattress, but as I snuggle in each night now, I feel like I'm being tucked into a royal bed.

Soon, our life will radically change.  This moment feels like good practice for letting things end.  For not resisting the nature of life.

But of course it's not practice.  It's living.  No one really knows the future--be that next year, tomorrow, or the next minute.  So this hyper-awareness of impermanence is actually an acceptance of reality.  An acceptance that time is finite.  And in that acceptance, I feel more appreciation of this moment than ever.