Friday, September 25, 2009

Eating Words, Loving Friends

There are very few things I love more in life than good books and good friends. In fact, these things will sustain me for a very long time. During the past couple of weeks, my friends have been very active in my life and I'm humbled by the amount of love they've shown me. But, I'm also grateful for the books I've befriended and their authors, whose work means the world to me. As a writer, I appreciate what is required to produce a good book. As a writing teacher, I deeply appreciate the investment of time and skill demanded each time a writer sits before an empty computer screen. Writing is truly one of the most difficult things one can do.

When it comes to reading, I devour books, eating them page by page. I swallow commas whole, without chewing. And, metaphors. Well, I relish metaphors, nibbling at the edges until I get to the center. Yes, enjoying a good book is much like tasting a good dish that has layers of flavors.

When I was studying for my Master's Degree, I read voraciously. I read and read and read books about my topic: History in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, an account of the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in the United States, following the Mexican-American War.

Cather's book is based on the real lives of two Jesuit priests who were brought to the  New Mexico Territory (after it became part of the United States) to build an archdiocese in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and their efforts to assimilate indigenous peoples living in the area. My premise (or thesis) was that Cather had written a work of fiction about historical events, in order to explore notions of racism, expansionism, warfare and manifest destiny in ways that would make it easier for  her readers to grasp their consequences.

To gather enough information to support my premise, I read thirty or forty more books about Cather as a writer, as well as several interviews conducted with her, books written by literary critics, and other historical works about the period. I read and read and read. In fact, my list of sources was about thirteen pages in length.

That amount of reading may sound daunting, but I read even more while studying for my doctorate degree. I don't think I can tell you how many books I read, but I read a lot of them and read them very fast. I was on a fast-track for completing my Ph.D., and was the first one to finish my studies in my class of cohorts. It took me a little over three years and the last year was spent doing intense research (I conducted a case study on six professional writers) and writing. During that year  I also taught three journalism courses and advised a college literary journal and radio station. My husband and I barely saw each other during that time.

The majority of my reading was done to prepare for comprehensive examinations--a set of tests each doctoral candidate must take, and pass, successfully. I read books about composition theory, cognitition and language, language acquistion, composition pedagogy, as well as books about my area of specialization, Narrative Theory and Research. I knew when I entered the program that I'd probably have to read about 150-200 books to prepare and (counting all the books I read for my classes), I probably read at least that many. I read and read and read, my friend.

Several years later, I read, on average, about six different books at a time. Since I teach, I'm always reading a textbook (my least favorite genre to read).  In addition, I read poetry everyday. Currently, I'm reading two novels, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Alice Mc Dermott's After This, as well as Carlos Fuentes' collection of short stories, On Families. Am also re-reading a book for my book club that's published online, seventeen student narratives, and re-reading a couple of religious texts.

I'm a bit of a reading snob, who believes that all readers have the right to walk away from a book that's not entertaining or interesting (unless it's required reading, of course). I have high expectations of authors and find myself judging their work as I read, much like I'm reading a student's written work. One book that really bothered me as I read it was Jonathan Franzen's, The Corrections. This was an Oprah favorite read and everyone I knew was reading it, so I bought it too. But, about fifty pages into the book, I grew bored reading about American middle-class angst and put it down.

One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino's If on a Dark Winter's Night a Traveler, which, on the surface, is a mystery story. However, it's really a book about story telling, and very experimental in nature. Calvino creates a narrator who speaks (figuratively, of course) to the reader, telling him/her to get settled in a comfortable chair with a drink before beginning to read. It's quite engaging to have a narrator speak to you as you read. A great technique.

I encourage students to become reading snobs, too. I want them to expect interesting stories. They should expect to be brought into the story by wonderful imagery, an interesting plot line, fascinating characters, and moving passages that are beautifully crafted.

My mother used to tell me that it takes the same amount of time and energy to write a good book as a bad one. But, I don't agree. Good writing takes forever. This is one thing I want my students to know. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Students, Mafia Wars and Human Rights Violations

I enjoy my students--and often write about them. This fall, on rather short notice, I agreed to teach an introductory English course at a local community college. After the first class meeting, I knew why I'd done so. It was the students--sixteen faces, full of expectations about a class they weren't entirely sure was necessary. It would require trust on their part.

After class, I decided to unwind by playing an online game a couple of friends enticed me into, called Mafia Wars. It's a sleezy little game that reinforces stereotypes, but it's fun. In about an hour, I was able to knock off several bad guys, including a neighborhood don, complete some assassinations with baseball bats and revolvers and increase my income by about $15,000. Then, I bought some land and added a deli to increase my monthly "take."

Pretty good for an English teacher.

Soon, my conscience began to bother me, so I wrote to a member of my Mafia, Cement Shoes Sammy, to inquire about his ethics for talking his former English professor into participating in such shady game playing.

This was not the first big adventure he'd talked me into. The last job Cement Shoes Sammy did on me involved lots of water and sinking. I shoulda established stronger boundaries with him on the first day of class.

Aw, never mind. I'd discuss it with his wife, aka, "Bullet Tooth, Tony." She'd see my side.

So, back to my affinity for my students. They bring me out into the world, just when my world seems to be making no sense whatsoever. The past two months, I've dealt with some health issues that have left my head spinning and my heart jumping.  Reminds me of playing

Things are not always what they appear to be.

So, why not lay aside worry about that over which I have no control and, for an hour and fifteen minutes, two nights a week, try to make a class predictable and conducive for students learning to write.

It would keep all of us feeling safe.

Before you get too philosophical on me, this is what's known as a double-edged sword. Aside from being wonderful, students can pose big problems. They can be treacherous.

For example, on the first day of classes, I ran into the mother of a former student. She introduced herself and when she told me her son's name (and added that he just couldn't wait to see me again--he was on campus, taking some courses, trying to figure out his life), I was in a panic.

He was one of the worst students I've ever had. His behavior was so provocative and bad that I threatened to go to the dean at one point. Just couldn't wait to get rid of the kid. And, now he is baaccck. 

Speaking of students and guerilla warfare, one of my favorite poems is "The Colonel," by Carolyn Forche, a piece about an El Salvadoran guerilla army leader whose brutal tactics illustrate the nature of warfare, its violations of human rights by torture and body dismemberment.

There's a connection between students, human rights violations and mafia wars (and English teachers--which is probably more apparent) and I'll show you what it is after you read the poem.

By the way, this does not read like a traditional poem, with an external (nor even internal) rhyme scheme. This is called a prose poem, because it reads like a short piece of prose. But, read it out loud to another person and pay attention to the effects it produces.


What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, (Line Removed by Jane). He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978 Carolyn Forché

Well, I've had my ears to the ground lately, and it seems my crime family, in Mafia Wars, has endured an onslaught of attacks in the past few days. Perhaps it's someone who doesn't like English teachers. 

O.K., so the moral of the story is: Beware of anyone who displays guerilla-like behaviors, including those who want you to climb into water. Colonels, students or teachers. If what you have heard is true, it's better just to listen. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Stories of Play

Last Saturday night, I spent the entire evening with my five year old friend, Aria, combing and styling hair on the nine little ponies in the picture above. It took us a couple of hours to comb knots out of the ponies' tails, braid their manes, curl their tails and top each style off with matching flower-barretts. I was completely entranced by the project, because, somehow, I missed doing all those little girl things as a child.

Now, as an adult, I'm fascinated with play. Ever notice how children burst onto the scene of each new day, full of expectation for fun and joy. Why can't adults enter a child's world of play? We might be better at stopping wars and sharing love if we could play like a child does.
In "Fun and Importance of Play: Why Adults Need to Play Too," Elizabeth Scott explains that in the process of playing, we express our creativity. She observes that when you or I get engrossed in an activity that's enjoyable, we "experience a state of being know as flow, in which your brain is in a near-meditative state, which has benefits for your for your body, mind and soul."

Along with being good for us, play is a gesture at the world, at others who share it with us. When others are playful, they are trying to engage with us in a positive, healing way. And, it's natural to do this--just look at the way the pink hibiscus in this picture seems to reach across the screen to elicit appreciation for its beauty and anticipation of the new flowers that have yet to open their petals.
Writers play with words--to be a good writer, one has to devote large chunks of time to writing, revising, playing around with the words to create meaning on the page. Poet William Carlos Williams' work is very playful. His poem "This is Just to Say," lures the reader into the work with a title that suggests or implies the subject is a serious one. Once he's set up the reader's expectations for a contemplative work, he takes the poem in a different direction. Defying readers' expectations is his way of playing with poems.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me.
They were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

This poem is meant to be read aloud, to be experienced, as all good poetry is meant to be. Experienced.

Deepok Chopra explains the connection between experience and sound, when he asserts that all the letters of the alphabet create vibrations that are connected to nature. "These are the sounds of of the wind, of fire crackling, of thunder, of the river rushing by, of ocean waves crashing on the shore" (The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, 171). "Nature," he notes, "is vibration."

If nature is vibration, aren't we close to a meditative state when we play and sing to the world with joy, like children.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Friendship Stories

This is another story about one of the four road trips I've made in the past six weeks to see friends and family. The most recent, this past weekend, to Western Pennsylvania to see a dear friend, who has been absent from my life for about twelve-fifteen years. Many years ago, we were musicians who practiced and performed together. Or rather, he was the musician and I, the wanna-be rock singer. Life took us down different paths and these days, he's a celebrity in a circuit of excellent musicians in a small mountainous village in western Pennsylvania. I'm an English teacher.
Actually, the trip took me back to an old dream that I never pursued, one that haunts me. But, aren't all unfulfilled promises and dreams haunting? Like the old barn in the picture that persists in standing at the side of the paved highway, beneath power lines held taut by the poles, this dream has wrapped itself tightly around my heart. It may deteriorate, even though, like the old barn, it's cast against the promise of an afternoon summer sky and surrounded by lush greenery and wildflowers. It may dry up and blow away, like a fragile leaf unable to cling to the branch of a birch tree. But, I don't think it will.

In a similar way, friendships stand up under all sorts of conditions--rain, sun, changes in seasons. At least most of mine have. I tend to choose friends who are stable, down-to-earth, unaltering souls who don't surprise me much. Sure, I like the spontaneous, fun-loving, changable folk as well, but my favorite friends allow themselves to be predictable in my eyes. I'm often the daredevil, the strong outgoing person of the pair. This is the dynamic I prefer in a friendship because it grounds me, the way a storm restores energy to the earth.

Another close friend--not so close in proximity--he lives in Sweden these days, has re-appeared and brought with him the comfort of his friendship with my late husband. Don is one of those unrockable people I love to surround myself with. A loyal friend to the end.

His memories of my husband, Mike, remind me of the fun we all shared. We also shared some of the bad times with Don, the difficult times he had and...well, the kinds of things we all endure as human beings.

Two more friends have recently come back into my life--Dan and Jen, a young couple who shared a very difficult time with me, after my husband's death. About two days after I arrived back in Pennsylvania, the two of them (and their three little ones) drove in from Utah. It has been a wonderful reunion, full of fun and celebrations.

Those who know me, know about Dan, the student in my English class who, after being told that I wouldn't be returning to teach the last half of the semester because of Mike's death, sent gorgeous white lillies. Within weeks, Dan, Jen and church missionaries were at my front door to help me through the long period of grief. Dan and Jen reflect the kinds of friends who defy boundaries, dare to cross lines to reach out during times of need. These friends are irreplaceable.
I was raised traveling the world and taught that, in spite of so-called wrong turns, we are never really lost. So, I learned to read signs, to know when a sign is really a symbol, a metaphor for what life means (whatever that means!). So far, every path I've taken has revealed a sign, something concrete to help me make sense of my life experiences. I look for these things--signs that we are meant to be here, on this planet doing exactly what we are doing. And, these friends tell me so.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fish Story

About two weeks ago, I spent the weekend with my brother and sister-in-law in San Antonio, where my brother Jack, production manager for the local PBS station, is working on a documentary about the Riverwalk extension. Between he and my sister-in-law, a local library administrator, I got an insider's tour, full of history and some facts that only local residents would be aware of.

It was dusk in the King William District when walked down to the dark- green river. I made several pictures of bridges and sent them to my cell phone buddies. The humidity-haze that nearly kissed the banks of the river, broken by low ground lights, created a romantic setting, like one might see in a Hollywood version of a Jayne Eyre movie. Except this was Texas.

After walking through lovely old neighborhoods, filled with gated and walled Victorian homes, into a part of the downtown hotel district, we drove to a recently installed art exhibit, comprised of seven-foot long fish, hanging under the I-35 bridge. The fish are suspended a few feet below the bridge, in such a way that they move back and forth as the bridge sways, at once responding to the movement of overhead traffic, and fish in the river below. Here's a picture my brother took at night, when the fish were illuminated.

Now that we're talking about fish, here's my favorite Marianne Moore poem.

The Fish
through black jade
the crow-blue muscle-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like


injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there, for submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices------
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink . . .
bespattered jellyfish, crabs like green
lillies and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice-------
all the physical features of

cident, lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

Evidence has proved that it can live
on what cannot revive

its youth.
The sea grows old in it.

Sorry for the bad formatting--anyone who's read this work knows the lines should be staggered. Anyway, along with its spot-on imagery (Moore was a biologist), reading the poem aloud should give you the experience of movement. I like it paired with the photograph.

But, we're neither fishing for poetry here nor swimming, so let's move along. The next day, my sister-in-law, Natalie, and I went on an eleven kilometer Volksmarch that circled the Riverwalk, and I can't imagine we missed any section. Descending the stone-covered stairs, we entered an engineered, walled, bejeweled community below-street-level. At the bottom of the stairs, I felt like I was crossing a line in time and space, entering a place which was very different from the world overhead. Of course it's intended to evoke that feeling, so tourists will relax, have fun and spend money. Although a little contrived, it was stunningly pretty, with flower-filled alcoves, hand-carved benches, rock covered stairs leading to imagined locations, lovely hotels with balconies, vine-covered edifices, statues, arts malls, and restaurants with margarita-sipping customers, who glowed as they sat mist sprayers. Then, there was a lovely outdoor theater, with a grass-covered seating area.

But, it was hot. Very hot. Humid and hot.
I wanted to throw myself into the river and swim back to the finish line. Would I be able to make it without taking the plunge?

Natalie and I carried bottles of water and, at one point, I resorted to pouring mine down my back, just to get a little cooler. (And, to get wet!) Finally, we stopped to sit on a tiled concrete bench that seemed to grow out of the sidewalk. I took this picture of Natalie--doesn't she have an aqualine look about her?

Guess I'm writing (or swimming) in circles here, so will end this story by invoking the philosophical (rhetorical) point: A fish doesn't know it lives in water until it's thrown onto the beach.

Back stroke.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Another Hero Story

Tom Nellen's Drawing of the Attack on the
Twin Towers on September 11

This fourth of July holiday, our nation is engaged in war. War has been a troublesome story in my life as my dad is a retired Air Force officer and pilot, who flew in three wars (WWII, Korean and Vietnam). As the teenage daughter of a colonel (and a member of the peace, not war movement), I took it as my personal mission to make his life miserable (he was my step-dad and I didn't need much reason to torture him), by questioning everything he believed to be true about the threat of Communism, the Cold War, and his need to protect our country.

But, forty years later, my views of war aren't so rigid--I worry about the civilians on both sides of every conflict. I worry, war is a gesture at the world that engages us with other human beings in a horribly sad and negative way. But, I no longer hate those who declare and participate in it.

Following the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001, our nation declared war. Mostly, I don't know how to think about that and tend to respond with mixed feelings of nationalism and fear. Fear that we've thrown down a gauntlet, crossed a line in the sand from which we might never return. It troubles me deeply, but I have no particular insight nor wisdom to pass along about it, so will, instead, share a hero story about a young boy who found himself in a very dangerous position on that morning.

Tom Nellen, the son of a good friend, was seven years old and in the second grade at PS 234 in NYC when two airplanes flew into the towers. His father, Ted Nellen, had just dropped him off and was heading uptown, by train, to teach his own class when he was notified of the attack.

(Read Ted's story here )

Just after the first plane hit the tower, Ted's cell phone rang and he got the message. He writes, "I turned around and saw an image I didn't believe. Then the second plane hit. I was in shock and was panicked that my son was down there and I was uptown." So, he turned back toward Toms' school, which, he later learned, had been evacuated. After a few hours, Ted found his son, and brought him to safety.

The crux on this hero story is what happened during the evacuation, as Tom, his classmates and teachers fled the blast. The words of Tom's teacher, Mary Jacob, speak of the horror, as they ran away from the blast. She told "Newsweek" reporters she was frightened that they might not be able to escape, and "didn't think she could outrun the thick cloud of blackness roiling toward them; when her legs gave out, she let go of his [Tom's] little hand and told him to run.
'God forbid something was to happen, I didn't want it to happen to him she recalls.

"So I was like, 'Go, you'll be OK'. Then [Mary] Jacob realized the black smoke had stopped its inexorable rush forward-and it was her turn to be saved. The little boy came back for her and said, 'C'mon. Let's go.'"

Read the entire story in the Commemorative issue of "Newsweek."

Tom turned back to help his teacher, probably not fully realizing the danger they both faced. As a seven year old, he wasn't able to calculate the time he had to turn around for her, before the debris hit them. But, isn't that the definition of a real hero: one who takes action without fully comprehending or thinking about the outcome. He knew in his heart that this was the right thing to do and he did it.

It was days before Ted was told about his son's actions. On the morning of the attacks, he knew (only) that his son had escaped injury. Ted became aware of Tom's heroism after he had come to Pennsylvania, a week later, to conduct a technology workshop for teachers in a writing project I directed. We had made the arrangements over the summer and, in spite of the attack on NYC, Ted insisted on leaving the city and coming to PSU to honor his obligation (I offered to re-schedule, but he wouldn't hear of it).

Actually, I was surprised when Ted told me he needed to get away from the devastation (he lived just a few blocks from ground zero and lived with the horrible smoke and soot and destruction for weeks. See Ted's photos of the area here

A couple of days after arriving at the campus, Ted got a call from home telling him what Tom had done. When he told me, "I've got to go home and be with my son," I understood. It was Ted's turn to be the hero. The story of a father honoring his son's needs (those of a young hero) is one of my favorite hero stories.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Let the Story Tell Itself

A few years ago, while defending my doctoral dissertation, a committee member challenged me on a statement I made. Actually, he challenged most of my research, but his questioning bothered me most about my statement on the power of stories. I said something about stories having a life and power all their own, such that they'll tell themselves (so to speak). And, as tellers of stories, we need to get out of the way and let them unwind on their own, rather than forcing a conclusion.

It was a leap, I'll admit, but, intuitively, it felt right to say. Perhaps it goes back to Chinua Achebe's point that the story is always in control of the story teller.

"It is only the story...that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence.The story is our escort;without it,we are blind.Does the blind man own his escort?No,neither do we the story;rather,it is the story that owns us. " — Chinua Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah)

My point is, we believe too much in ourselves as the creators of story, so, at times, get so far ahead of it that we try to control the ending, the denoument. We do this because, by controlling the conclusion, we believe we are in control of the major events in our lives. We're all guilty of doing this, by trying to figure out how relationships will unfold, what kind of people our children will grow into, how our family members feel about us, what the future holds for us.

One of my favorites examples of this is the mythical character, Orpheus, who tried desperately to bring his wife and lover back from death. (Read a brief description of the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the Encyclopedia Mythica Online


Orpheus missed his beloved Eurydice so much that he followed her to the underworld and, after charming the gods with his sweet voice and music, was granted the opportunity to bring her back to life. But, there was a condition. As they ascended from Hell, Orpeus was not to look back at his lover, a promise that he, in his desire to reconnect with his love, broke.

He turned and glanced over his shoulder, and his punishment was to lose her forever. Why, one wonders, did he do this? If he hadn't looked back, would the story have ended differently? Several poets have raised this question, including John Milton, W.H. Auden, H.D. and a contemporary poet, Jorie Graham.

See H.D.'s poem, "Eurydice"

Another poem that examines this is Jorie Graham's "Orpheus and Eurydice."

Back to the point. Why do we care why Orpheus, in spite of dire warnings, looked back? In my own opinion, Orpheus' plight or tragic loss resonates with us because we struggle with a need to predict the end of the stories of our lives.

Perhaps this is what this blogger is trying to achieve by writing--that is, to write something conclusive about life. Myabe I'll end this post without ending the story.