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Bringing it on home

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

How do other people know who they are? If you know who your father was, does it make a difference in who you think you are? Where is “home”? I’ve been playing Aaron Neville’s latest CD, Bring It On Home,  and it calls me back from this sense of diffusion that keeps carrying me off into the clouds over Portland. “Tell it like it is,” Aaron sings, “Respect yourself.” Last night I listened to a woman read a couple of chapters from her (so far) unpublished (but spellbinding and well-crafted) novel about young gay men in Japan just before the bombing of Hiroshima. She’s certain she was Japanese in past lives–she can dimly but unmistakably remember Japan, and when she lived there (in this life), many of the places she went to for the first time were as familiar to her as the streets of the town in Michigan where she grew up. She knew what was around the corner before she rounded the corner. She attributes that to karmic ancestry rather than genes. What explains affinity?  Some people who’ve never been to Morocco long for all things Moroccan. Others are drawn to Chinese art. Some feel truly worshipful in front of Byzantine icons. I’ve lost all sense of who I am or why I ever wanted to know and cannot proceed with my autobiographical novel right now. I’m letting that be. At the same time I’ve received some terrific emails that also serve to bring me on home. [read on]

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.

Magical thinking

Monday, August 27th, 2007

It is always helpful to listen to someone a little older than you are, someone who has just crossed through the terrain you’re about to travel. Someone whose vision is not too different from yours, who can see further because she’s ahead of you in time. Joan Didion is one such person for me. She published Slouching Toward Bethlehem when I was an undergraduate creative writing major, and “Writers are always selling somebody out” became my motto. I even quoted it in my first little photocopied book, a collection of dramatic monologs based on women whose stories I had listened to. I used these monologs in my one-woman show, and although I made no money on that show–I made, in my best year, only $70 over expenses–still I felt conflicted about the stories: by performing them, was I celebrating the women, or exploiting them? It worried me. Didion wrote, back then, about hippies and drugs and Communism and other things that attracted and frightened me. Now she’s writing about grief. [read on]

What Tillie Olsen actually said

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Today while I was packing books I came across my old paperback copy of Tillie Olsen’s Silences. The paper is brown and crumbly, and the words have been read, underlined, and read again so many years ago that they became part of the way my own brain works. It is a marvel to look at them and think that at one time, these ideas were new to me. Look. [read on]

The best thing about getting old…

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

What I like best about getting old is the clarity that comes from watching the roller coasters soar and sink for so many years that, while I never lose interest in what will happen next, I am also less likely to expect that whatever is happening now will go on happening. Buddhists call it impermanence. The breath arises and falls away, and that becomes a metaphor…. I’ve received a wealth of emails from old friends over the last few days, and I sit here with my arms outstretched, as if I could embrace us all. [read on]

Mexico: the plan

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Gallo, Ansie, and I leave early tomorrow morning for Guanajuato/Leon airport. I can’t quite believe it. The idea was born in a Sugar Land, Texas coffee shop as Jake, an artist buddy of mine, talked about how hungry his eyes were for color and texture. I told him he should feast his eyes on Mexico; he said he doesn’t speak Spanish; and despite the fact that I speak it so badly it hardly even counts as speaking it at all, somehow we were on our way. I told Gallo (who really DOES speak Spanish), and he looked at his calendar and said he could go; and then I had lunch with Ansie (who took a course in conversational Spanish last semester), and she said she could go–and so, magically, we were four. Then Jake changed his mind. About a week ago I paused long enough to wonder what the hell I’m doing. I sat with the question for a little while and lapsed into a blank state of wonder. Life keeps on bringing surprises. [read on]

Great teachers and mentors

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

The work of a great teacher is not to do but to see: to see where a student is going before the student does; and to en-courage the student to keep moving in her own (authentic) direction, whatever that may mean or cost. My first grade teacher was Agnes Grinstead Anderson, in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. (I’ve chosen a link to an article written about her by a high school student; I think she’d like that.) Agnes taught me how to read in 1951, and she lived just one Mississippi thicket away from where I lived with my mother, step-father, and baby sister. Sometimes I ran away from the nightmares of my house, plunged through the briars and the undergrowth to Mrs. Anderson’s house, and hid there. Her daughter, Leif, was a year older than I and was my first childhood friend, but it was not Leif I went to visit. Agnes was my genie, my inspirer. Of course I didn’t know then that she was supporting her four children and a dysfunctional genius husband on a teacher’s salary and her own raw strength, or that the last thing she needed was someone else’s abused child hanging around her doorstep, but something in her shoulders, her eyes, and her words called me to my best self. I only knew that she saw promise in me, and her belief gave me hope. [read on]

New Year’s Eve

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

I got all the papers graded. I’ve laid out five of the eight pages of The Midnight Special, I’ve realized that maybe the piece of writing due January 31st can be easier than I envisioned, and I can’t bear to think about the next round of classes. Instead, it’s New Year’s Eve, a time I love to reflect on the gifts of the passing year and to hold the whole planet in my heart with gratitude, compassion, and tenderness, so how could I not blog this day? [read on]

The Promise of Joy

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

As I drove to the park for my walk this morning, Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” came on the radio, and suddenly I was twenty-eight, pregnant with Seth, and full of joy. Throughout that pregnancy I played the Messiah, danced to it, hummed it, and grinned. The baby I was carrying had excellent genes, and our life was going to be one surprise after another. The joy of that music is the joy of possibility. Sitting in the parking lot on this warm Texas morning in December, it came to me clearly that I have spent most of my sixty-one years living in joy, expecting something wonderful. Expectation is not necessarily, as some Buddhist texts warn, the seed of disappointment or suffering. It is its own fulfillment. Anticipation fills life with wonder, hope, a vibrating YES that is not (for me) ever diminished by fulfillment. When the anticipated event arrives, it is what it is, never what I thought it would be. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes it carries a hidden load of pain. But nothing can erase the joy of anticipation. Those times in my life when I have been joyfully expecting some event, change, or beginning (pregnant, about to move to a new place, on the brink of a new project, packing my boxes and giving away my possessions, half my body already over another cliff-edge)–those times I was IN JOY. I was not living in the future but living in joy, in anticipation of possibility. The promise of joy is joy itself. [read on]