Monday, December 28, 2015

Facing down the mountain in the New Year

Chicago, one of our housesitting gigs.

2015. In my personal sphere and on the planet, it's been a year of darkness and light.  It's been a year of writing and travel, growth and exploration. And of letting go, again and again.

Pema Chodron has been my greatest guide, Byron Katie a close second. They remind me to soften, to keep my sense of humor, to love (accept) what is.

All my precarious emotions? They are projections; they are bad weather in a vast, unchanging sky. And the feelings that come from my gut? They are my guide.

This year has been a bunch of puzzle pieces fitting together. We spent the first few months at our little house in Mexico. One of our biggest adventures was taking four days to drive up Baja. After that--except for New Orleans in spring Chicago in summer--we spent the rest of the time buzzing all over California.

When you add up all of our housesitting gigs this year (Chicago, Rancho Palos Verdes, San Francisco, Berkeley, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Tahoe)--that's six months of free rent!

Sure, we take care of cats and dogs; sometimes that feels like work, but for the most part it's fun. Even the dog who bit my finger, and the dog who barked in the middle of the night--I got over it, and so did they.

Traveling around California, it seemed we spent more time with family and friends than we did when we lived here. We were privileged to attend my niece's 8th grade graduation and Dave's nephew's wedding. Another highlight was time with my 92-year-old piano playing aunt. And, just the other day, skiing with my sister and her kids.

In June, my memoir (my fifth book) came out, followed by a flurry of book parties, readings, workshops, and generally awesome mayhem. Friends, family, former students and colleagues cheered me on, and strangers became intimates.

Some of the material in the book is so potentially embarrassing that I jokingly tell people to pretend it's fiction. But as Joe Loya once said, we must be willing to be embarrassed to write a memoir. And of course it's all the juicy bits that people love--not just for the sake of titillation, but because they can exhale and say, "Ah, yes, we're all very human, aren't we?"

Also on the writing front, Elephant Journal took me on as a regular contributor. The scope is mind-boggling; thousands of people are reading and sharing my pieces. People email me about how my writing is affecting their lives. Others have invited me to be guests on their blog-casts and telesummits. Holy internet!

My piece "How to Have a Crush on Your Husband" went viral. I was a puddle on the floor when I saw how many used their comments to express their love for their spouses.

Maybe that's my calling: spreading love with my words like some doped-up hippie child strewing flowers. (Although I'm doing it without being doped up, for the most part, since I rarely drink booze anymore, and I quit coffee.)

Boo and Coco, the beasts at our San Francisco housesit.
On my blog, I started a series I call "Books That Inspire." It's a blast interviewing authors whose work makes a difference in the world.

This was a year of music and adventure: JazzFest in New Orleans, American Music Festival in Santa Cruz, High Sierra Music festival in Northern California, and a sprinkling of other live shows. We went river rafting, beachside bike riding, Yosemite hiking, snow skiing, and swimming with whale sharks.

I continue to be grateful for my health after brain surgery two years ago--and yet now there's this whole "going through menopause" thing. It's not for wimps.

Here in Tahoe, Dave's been battling a rough flu (as I did earlier in the year). And several friends are battling grave illnesses. I am reminded the body is both fragile and resilient.

While Dave was sick, I took the leap and skied by myself. People chatted with me on the lift and invited me to ski with them.

The perimenopausal skier in action.

And then, when I accidentally found myself facing a gnarly, ungroomed, moguly, super-steep run (not my forte!)--ahem, two different times--angels came to me. Once a woman and once a man, each who guided me down. Thankfully, I was able to face down the mountain, turn and traverse.

As this year closes, it's becoming clear there are a lot of uncertainties ahead for these nomads. We aren't sure what shape our work and living situation are going to take.

But guess what? We know how to turn. We know how to face down the mountain. Let us remember that in 2016.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

"You're not crazy. You can survive this, whatever 'this' is."

Joelle in South Africa

So many threads woven through Joelle Renstrom's book (Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature) mirrored much of my life and writing:
* caregiving for her ill father and grieving after he dies
* seeking new aspects of herself in travel
* trying to teach meaningfully
* turning to literature as a guiding force
* developing a spiritual vision.

Her writing is gorgeous; her fine sentences elevate even the darkest subject matter.

One big difference between us is that she's a science fiction aficionado. I wanted to know about that, and other things, in our conversation:
I see your book as a coming-of-age at one of the most profound levels: coming to terms with mortality due to the loss of your dad. Is this how you would describe it? What else would you want readers to know about your book?

I shy away from describing it that way. For me, the book is really about making a choice. The choice is about what we do when our lives blow up. The first step is realizing that one has the power to make a choice in the first place. That took me a long time. It seemed that the world had spun out of control and I was powerless to affect anything. While I couldn’t cure my dad’s cancer, I could control my worldview. I could—and did, for a while—embrace a tragic view of the world and of life. But ultimately, who wants that?
My book is about ways we can reconcile control and lack of control, since life is a dance between these two positions, and how we can regain agency when it comes to making sense the world and our place in it.
Toward the beginning of the book you say, "I'm a great appreciator of terrible beauty, but I can get stuck and wallow in the terrible part for a while before I remember to open my eyes." By the end of the book, you seem to be less of a wallower and more of a wonderer. To what do you attribute this shift?
My answer to the previous question gets at this shift, I think, which was about realizing that I don’t have to participate passively in life. There will always be death and sadness—I can always consider myself a victim if I choose to. But I don’t have to position myself as the unwitting recipient of what other people or the universe offers. I don’t need to fix the world or the way things work, which is good, because I can’t. What I can change is my relationship to the world and the levels on which I can understand how I function within it.
The most concrete example I have of this shift comes by way of travel. After my dad’s death, I went on a pilgrimage to Scandinavia, my fatherland. I’ve learned that a relatively easy way to change my relationship to the world is to change geographically my location within it, which then catalyzes other, often unpredictable shifts.
When traveling, there are things one can’t control, such as whether a bus is late or whether it gets someplace safely, but in order to enjoy travel, one has to let that go and focus on what one can control—where am I going on my walk this afternoon? Will I talk to this person sitting on my right? Will I sit here a moment and think about my dad, even though it means I’ll start crying in a crowded place? Even though they might seem small, making those decisions was a huge step in renegotiating my relationship to the world and to myself.
I like how you describe your teaching experiences, how you help students to dig into books. What do you like best about teaching, and what do you find most challenging?
I used to work in an office—a few of them, actually—doing a variety of different jobs (a paralegal, a marketing editor, a researcher). But I didn’t like any of them. At the end of the day, I’d ask myself, what good did I do today? And the answer was always none (aside from making it possible to pay my rent). With teaching, I don’t ever have to ask myself that question.
The hardest part is when students struggle—academically, emotionally, socially, whatever—and all I can do is to ask whether there’s anything I can do. I can listen if a student needs to talk or help a student who has questions, but other than that, there’s not much I can. Sometimes I want to take students by the shoulders, shake them, and tell them how it is, set them straight. But it wouldn’t work. People have to find their own way, and for teenagers, this can be particularly painful. The hardest part is accepting that I can’t live their lives (or write their papers) for them.
Your book made me want to read Arthur Clarke, and I now have Childhood's End on my Kindle. I've read Ray Bradbury, whom you also write about, but not much more one could categorize as science fiction (unless you count Cloud Atlas, which I loved--not the movie but the book). Why do you like (and teach) science fiction, and what books and authors would you recommend?
Science fiction blows the doors off the confines of reality. I love literary fiction, but sometimes I get tired of reading realistic accounts of relationships, jobs, and well, reality. There’s really only so many ways to describe the situations we all know so well. Sci-fi offers alternatives to that while at the same time avoiding frivolousness. We get social commentary from sci-fi, we get thought experiments. Even works about robots and aliens are, at their heart, about what it means to be human. I’d rather explore that question from more interesting and unexpected parameters (or no parameters at all).
As for recommendations, I’m more about soft sci-fi (sci-fi that focuses on people, rather than on technical specifics) like Bradbury and Clarke. That said, I’m a sucker for Asimov, whose prescient robot works predicted current and future trends in the field. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut (which is and isn’t sci-fi, depending on who you ask), Dune by Frank Herbert, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, Glasshouse by Charles Stross, Frankenstein (the father of them all), anything by Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler…I could go on and on.
What surprised (and captivated) me the most was where the book led by the end, to what I would call a growing spiritual awareness. Is that how you would define it? What led to this shift, and why does it matter to you?
I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “spiritual awareness” to describe what happens in the end of the book, though that’s certainly an accurate description. “Spiritual” is a buzzword that people generally take to mean something specific, and probably not how I would define spirituality for myself. And while spirituality and religion are in my mind quite distinct, part of the reason I tend to avoid that word is because the two are so often associated. But anything that involves something significant that happens to us on the inside could be called spiritual. A feeling of awe, or peace, or whatever—all of that is spiritual. And by the end of the book, I was able to cultivate those feelings again, which is how I knew I’d be okay.
For me, the biggest piece of this transformation was realizing that thinking about something isn’t the only way to interact with or understand it. I’ve always been an analytical person. When confronted with something difficult, whether it’s a problem at work or a conflict with someone else or even death, I tend to lodge that problem in my brain and turn it over and over in an attempt to work it out. But sometimes, that’s not possible. Sometimes, it’s even detrimental.
That’s one thing I love about travel—you can’t just sit and think. You have to move. For me, spirituality comes from a shift away from thinking and analyzing and a movement toward simply feeling and being. My brain puts me at the center of the world, which often inhibits my understanding of things on a bigger scale.
Joelle in the Azores
What would you tell your younger self?

Dear self,

You think you have a plan. You think you know what you want from life—you even think you know how to get it. But listen, and don’t take offense at this: you can’t possibly know those things. And honestly, you don’t want to know. What fun would that be?
Life will not go according to plan, but ultimately, that’s the best possible outcome. If it went according to plan, you wouldn’t learn much about yourself and the world. If it went according to plan, your seven-year-old worldview and goals would dominate your life, and that’s not really what you want (trust me on this one).
Planning doesn’t determine who you are—it’s how you react to all the things you didn’t plan that shapes you. And you’re way, way better at dealing with the unexpected than you think. You’ll see.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Death and coping/recovering from the death of a loved one is an intensely personal experience. In a lot of ways, it’s also a selfish one. I don’t—and can’t—write about how my mom, brother, or sister processed my dad’s death. That’s not to say their experiences don’t matter, just that they’re not mine to tell. I don’t want to project my journey onto anyone else or to suggest that what helped me is anyone else’s Rosetta Stone.
That said, such narratives do offer invaluable comfort. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking kept me sane—if Didion feels like I do, I thought, then I’m not crazy. If Didion can survive this, then survival is possible. Ultimately, that’s what I hope to offer readers. You’re not crazy. You can survive this, whatever “this” is.

Joelle Renstrom is a freelance writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen?, about the relationship between science and science fiction and her work has appeared in Slate, Full Grown People, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing and research with a focus on science fiction, space, and artificial intelligence at Boston University.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Something good is going to come from this."

Continuing our nomadic ways, we are housesitting in South Lake Tahoe. This wonderful house overlooks the lake. Out the front door are acres of trails, where we enjoy walking with the lovable, furry Ely.

In January, we are moving to a condo, also in South Lake, a house-swap for the whole month.

We've been planning this time in Tahoe for a while. So imagine our surprise when we went to Heavenly Valley Ski Resort to buy season passes--and were told we were three days too late. They'd stopped selling season passes. We were stunned. For the amount we wanted to ski, daily passes would cost an arm and a leg.

We asked to see a supervisor, pleading our case that we'd been visiting Heavenly's website for months and had seen no notification. He said sorry, there was nothing he could do, but he gave me the number of his higher-up.

On our way to the car, I said, "Dave, something good is going to come from this."

That's my mantra when things don't go as planned. I used it when our rental house went on the market. I've used it when we are stuck in traffic. I used it when I found out I had a brain tumor.

It's a reminder that whatever is happening isn't the end of the story.

I wasn't sure I believed it in this case, though. Heavenly is owned by Vail Corporation. I don't care what anyone says but corporations are not people.

As soon as we walked out, I left a message on the higher-up's voice mail: I'm a writer. I'll be writing about our time in Tahoe. Friends of ours are coming to visit who'll be buying day passes. It will be good for business. There was no warning about the deadline. Please have some compassion for our situation. Yadda, yadda.

I texted Suzanne, the woman we are housesitting for who's a big skier. She texted me back, "Well, maybe you could get passes at Sierra-at-Tahoe. It's not as close, but I love skiing there."

Sierra-at-Tahoe? Why was that familiar? Oh yes, we'd never skied there but we'd seen our favorite band play there a couple of years ago. The place was charming. I'd love the feel of it. It was small, tucked away, more of a local's resort. We'd been so Heavenly-focused (for the ease of location), we hadn't thought about that. Yet would it be a pain to drive 30 minutes to ski?

We walked around town and popped into the Visitor's Center to browse. I mentioned to the young woman behind the counter that we couldn't get Heavenly passes.

"You should go to Sierra-at-Tahoe!" she enthused, adding that she worked there for eight years and loves it. She whipped out a map of the resort, excitedly talking about her favorite runs.

Seemed like a thumb's up from the universe to me.

I had such a good feeling about Sierra-at-Tahoe that by the time the higher-up called me back, I almost hoped he'd say no.

And sure enough, he checked with his higher-ups, and there was a consensus: They didn't want our business or our money.

Dave went onto the Sierra-at-Tahoe website. Their passes were half the cost of Heavenly's!

And get this: We have good friends who will be skiing at Squaw in January. We were hoping to join them, all the while knowing we'd probably be paying a lot to do so. But our Sierra-at-Tahoe passes include two free days at Squaw!

The drive to Sierra-at Tahoe was easy. We immediately loved skiing there. There's a low-key vibe. And the runs are really, really long. Like over a mile. So fun.

It's funny. With big things--like my brain tumor and losing our house--I really did believe that something good was going to happen. That the journey would be expansive. But with something small, like this ski pass thing, I wasn't so sure. But that what a mantra's for: to interrupt a habitual pattern of thinking that doesn't serve you.

It serves me to believe that life is an adventure. That what's around the corner isn't determined by what's right in front of me. That whatever I face, something good can come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Healing Yourself 

In my continuing  series, Books That Inspire, I spoke with Amy Scher, whose new book How To Heal Yourself When No One Else Can is coming out January 8.

What inspired you to write this book?
After healing myself from various physical and emotional challenges, I connected with so many wonderful people who were asking exactly how I did it. While I have a full-time private practice where I help clients one-on-one with this process, I just can’t reach everyone who needs this type of support. Most people understand that healing is possible, even when it doesn’t seem that way; but how to do it can be very overwhelming. I wrote this book so readers could see how I did it, and how they could apply that to their own lives.

"When life kicks your ass, kick back" is your mantra. Why is this idea important to you?
It’s funny because this started off as meaning “kicking back” as in kicking life’s ass right back when it gets tough. But over time, I interpret it more as kick-back as in “relax.” I’ve learned there is a certain balance between forging ahead with conviction to overcome something and letting go so it can unfold. They are both essential to overcoming any obstacle.

You are an energy therapist. What is "energy therapy"?
Energy therapy is a way to access the body’s energy system and its imbalances. Imbalances happen in our energy field long before they turn physical. By going back and working with the body’s subtle energies and correcting any imbalances, we can affect change in the physical and emotional body.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Trust. Let go. Trying to control everything controls you right into being a totally freaked out, unhappy human.

What advice would you give to people about living the life you really want to live?
You have to be who-you-really-are. So many of us fear judgment and upsetting others that we live our lives according to who we think we should be. I have a great quote in my book by life coach Jordan Bach that I think speaks perfectly to this point: “Being yourself is hard. Living with the regret of having lived your life according to other people’s expectations is hard. Pick your hard.”

Do you find writing easy or hard? What words of wisdom can you offer to people who want to write a book?
It totally depends on the day. Ha. Sometimes, I sit down and it flows out of me and I can’t stop it. Other times, I find every other thing to do but write. The best wisdom I can offer to others is to write, write, write. Don’t filter or edit as you write. Just write whatever is inside of you. I’d never want anyone to read my first or second drafts because it’s all just brain spew. It takes awhile for some things to look like real "real writing." But it has to start somewhere.

In your book, you say instead of getting judgmental about our healing process, it's helpful to trust in the unfolding, to know that what is happening is "necessary for your path." Can you say more about that?
[Thinking this way] can really help us in all aspects of life. We add so much extra craziness to our craziness. If we can just experience what’s happening and not add our own “stuff” to it, we can then just move through it. It’s the judging and analyzing and beating ourselves up that makes mountains out of molehills.

Amy B. Scher, based in L.A., is a leading voice in the field of mind-body healing. She believes that our ultimate wellbeing is born not from self-help, but self-love. She was named one of Advocate's "40 Under 40" for 2013. Visit her website here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"When something seems impossible, do it anyway."

In our nomadic fashion, Dave and I have experienced some incredible natural phenomena in the past few years. Reading Leigh Ann Henion's book,  Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World, has made me itch to see more--especially the great migration in Tanzania, the bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, and the Northern lights in Sweden (and to stay in an ice hotel!).

Leigh Ann (right) with reindeer herder Johanna Huuva,
taking a break from sledging on the Torne river near JukkasjÀrvi, Sweden
Her book is more than a travelogue; it's a journey into the physical and metaphysical mysteries. For my "Books That Inspire" series, Leigh Ann and I had a chat about how chasing eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe helped to reawake her sense of wonder. 

It's fun that both of our books have "Wonder" in the title/subtitle. What is it about wonder that's important to you?
I've written that wonder isn't about finding answers; it's about becoming more comfortable with questions. Wonder is an emotion that can provide perspective and overpower fear.

"Hesitant" is also in your subtitle. What has made you a "hesitant" adventurer? And what might you say to others who are hesitant about exploring the natural world?
Popular culture often presents the "adventurous" archetype as someone who is fit, very young, and unencumbered. And I'm not fit, very young, and unencumbered. One of the great discoveries I made while researching Phenomenal is that there are a lot of adventurous people who wouldn't make the cover of a fitness magazine. There are eighty year olds mapping out cave passages, elementary school teachers chasing tornadoes during school holidays.

I used the word "hesitant" because I'm often nervous before trips, but I go anyway. As for advice, I think that depends on the individual and the situation. But one of my new favorite mantras has become: When something seems impossible, do it anyway. Everything about Phenomenal seemed impossible until it wasn't.

You didn't set out on a spiritual journey, but your odyssey into the world's phenomenal events developed into one. Why do you think your journey unfolded in this way? How as a spiritual outlook affected your life?

I think my journey became a spiritual pilgrimage because, if you look into nature—via science or your own eyes—you're going to discover deepening mysteries. And spiritual and scientific modes of discussion are some of the only frameworks we have to talk about mystery. As a writer, I'm more artist than scientist, so spirituality dominates my vocabulary.

Thinking in terms of metaphor and mythology has opened me to spiritual discussions, even though talking about mystery—as a layperson in spiritual or scientific circles—opens one to a great deal of criticism. But it's important, I think, to have a variety of voices in dialogue about big questions.

When you start looking into one natural phenomena, you find it's connected to another, on and on. Awakening to that interconnectivity has given—and continues to give me—a sense of spiritual solace.

I noticed in your book that in addition to the sense of vision, you focus a lot on the sense of sound. Why is that?

We're a screen-obsessed culture, and we've started talking about the world mostly via sight-based language. But when you're witnessing a wildebeest migration in Tanzania, you're not just seeing rivers of animals—you're hearing their hooves, you're breathing in the dust those hooves kick up. You're present. I think that growing awareness influenced me, and it's why sound became a character in the book. Of course, hanging out with modern-day shamans and listening to deer-antler organs in the Arctic also influenced things!

You quote eclipse-chaser and writer Kate Russo as saying that the "real issue is that people don't feel free. They feel they have to live according to this script that's for everybody." What would you say to people who might want to challenge the script and live more freely?
What seems impractical to others might be supremely practical in the context of your life.

What natural marvels have you not seen that you would like to?

The list is ever-growing. If you'd asked a month ago, I might have said I'd like to witness a murmuration, a mass of birds twisting and turning as if a single creature. To do so, I thought I might have to travel to the UK, Israel, or another locale where they're common. But, just last month, I was driving through Kentucky and one appeared right over the highway. One of the enduring gifts of my Phenomenal journey is that I'm always on watch for wonder.

Leigh Ann Henion's essays and articles have appeared widely, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. She lives in the Appalachian mountains.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nomadic California Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...and hiked to a magical waterfall.

One of California fall's jewel-like days.

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

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

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

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

Checking out the neighborhoods.

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

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What would you tell your younger self?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Hundred Beds

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

Maybe a hundred?

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

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

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

A walk in San Rafael with Pat and Sherlock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2015

Radical Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary and Andy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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