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Losing my bearings

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

When I chose to retire and move to Portland, I thought I knew, however dimly, what I was doing. I wanted to write full-time. I wanted to be done grading papers written by nineteen-year-olds who didn’t want to write them.  I was worn out by seven-day work-weeks, by short courses I taught during holidays in order to earn extra money, by broken relationships and the relentless difficulty of parenting, and by migraines. Sharply aware that I was on the threshold of “old age” and the dissolution of this mind and body, I wanted some joy and ease before this life was over: time to read, walk, daydream, sit on a park bench in a rose garden. I wanted a room of my own and time to write this autobiographical novel I’ve been composing in the back of my mind since I was seven years old. After a lifetime of Buddhist practice, I thought I was ready to write the answer to the koan, “Who am I?” The first sentence came to me during that ten-day Vipassana meditation course: “I have always wanted to be a saintly person.” It would be a comic epic. As a way of doing “research” for the book, I began in earnest to seek out where this fool who calls herself Kendall came from–who her phantom father was, who her people were, how her pieces fit together. I stumbled into a possible whole new family. Very dramatic, but suddenly I’m stunned into silence. The book disintegrates. I can’t find the central character. She is neither fiction nor non-fiction. She is neither Narcissus nor Goldmund, contemplative nor adventurer, Gentile nor Jew. I look at the pages I’ve written since I came here, and I feel nausea. I’m sick of this story. I feel lonely and displaced. Lost. What am I doing here? [read on]

So much to learn

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

If I could read five pages at once, I would be doing that. My hunger to know is so great. I’m dimly aware of the rest of the world: 360 women, many of them Tibetan nuns, arrested in Nepal. Unimaginable suffering in Burma, where a Red Cross boat full of aid supplies for survivors sank in flood waters. But inside my head, I’m transfixed by the baby daddy drama of my own life. Searching for my father. Trying to understand who he was, and who his people were, and whether that has some significance in my life. What is family? is it a genetic unit? an emotional unit? a legal entity? what are the ties that bind? I sit and stare at the pictures on my monitor, inviting them to talk to me, tell me stories. There is something eerily familiar in these faces, these people to whom I may be related. I study the forehead, the nose, the bridge of the nose, the slant of the eyes, the cheekbones, the shape of the head. What do we get from our genes? I’m reading books I never imagined I would read in all my life: books about merchant ships during WW2. I even got a 1943 Humphrey Bogart movie in which Bogart is First Mate on a merchant ship: torpedoes, flames on the water, stereotypical German officers in submarines (observation: when the “Germans” die, they scream in agony; when the “Allies” die, they look stoically and silently toward heaven), violins playing as the wives back home wait for the news.  The movie starts with a quotation from FDR that ends, “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!” and it made my eyes fill up. I’ve heard that phrase before, but I didn’t connect with it. Now I do. I’m also reading Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai (wonderfully well-written, fascinating: and here’s a short, powerful article by Judith that’s like the condensed version), and I watched a documentary on the Yiddish Theatre . Even if I’m not Jewish (but I think I am, I think I am), I’m having a great time learning all of this.

Starting the blog again–from Portland

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

I’ve just moved to Portland, Oregon and am starting a whole new life as a full-time writer. I retired from college teaching in December, and so far, everything about the move is good, right, and wonderful. I left Houston Feb. 4, stopped in Arizona to visit my elder son, Chris Virden, and his family, and arrived in Portland Feb. 10. I’m not sure how much I will write in the blog, but I am in motion in a different way than I have been in the past–and a few of my friends have asked me to open the blog again, so I’m doing it today and we’ll see how it goes. Stephen Brody, who came into my life via the blog when he picked up on a tag to Sintra, the town where he lives, was a frequent commenter to the blog. I’ve invited him to write as often as he wants to. He is (I think he will agree) a little more cynical than I am, and (in my opinion) his views–even when, maybe especially when I don’t agree with them–add a little spice to the blog. I am not interested in being one of the world’s most popular bloggers, nor in making multiple entries per day. I am fascinated by Eleanor Roosevelt’s columns. I thought she published them once a week, which seemed reasonable to me; but then I learned she published them SIX days a week, which I think is a bit much. I will begin with a 3-page piece I wrote a few days ago to describe my trip to Portland and my first impressions. Here that is. [read on]