The Indian Family in the Hospital Lobby

Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.

Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.

For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.

And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.

Vassar’s Creative Writing Program – Pros and Cons

Below is a comment I posted on the “Don’t Let Vassar Silence Writers” Facebook page in 2010, a group that was trying to prevent deep cuts to the Vassar Creative Writing program. I’ve also included (with permission) the comments of some of my fellow alums, all of whom were active with me in the student-run literary magazine Helicon. Students a year or two ahead of me founded the magazine. I served as Helicon’s Managing Editor during my senior year (1994-1995).

I had aspirations to become a published poet and “woman of letters” when I enrolled at Vassar. I was very confident — perhaps even arrogant — about my writing abilities. Vassar’s English department completely destroyed that confidence. This was in the early 90s, when the entire extent of the Creative Writing program consisted of Composition, Narrative Writing, Verse Writing, and Senior Composition. I took them all except for Senior Comp. That year, the only slot given to a poet went to a young man I’d never met.

The education I got at Vassar was very good, and the English literature program is rigorous and outstanding. On reflection, I’m not sure that I would change my decision to study at Vassar. But it definitely stifled my ability to write creatively. As a writer, I’m still recovering from that experience almost 15 years later.

Sarah Fnord Avery: My experience in the classroom at Vassar was overwhelmingly positive…until the Senior Creative Writing Seminar. The professor teaching it that semester was clueless about poetry, actively hostile toward genre fiction, and occasionally offensive to women in his choice of assigned model texts. All three of the poets in the seminar that year were consistently frustrated. I learned far more from my classmates than from the prof.

Strangely, the thing that happened at Vassar that came closest to silencing me as a writer was that my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. They thought they were helping me establish a writing life, but the academic job market and the process of preparing for it had changed so much between the 70s, when they got their degrees and positions, and the 90s, they had no idea what they were urging me into.Vassar I would definitely choose over again, but not grad school. Rutgers was a mitigated disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.
January 11, 2010 at 08:08pm

Sara Susanna Moore: I took only one writing course at Vassar, a required course for my degree– I think it was Composition. It was taught by Heinz Insu Fenkl, on whom I had a terrible crush. So of course I took his critiques of my work very personally and was terrified to talk to him. Plus, I was the only senior in a class of first-years, so we mostly sat in silence, as everyone was terrified to talk. It was possibly the worst class I had at Vassar, not entirely Prof. Fenkl’s fault, though it might have been his first teaching position. At the end of the semester, right before graduation, I screwed up my courage and went to his office hours, and put one question to him: “What kind of job would a PhD in English give me in the current job market?” He answered: “*Maybe* a position at a community college.” And then proceeded to layer on more things that were intended to discourage me from pursuing that degree, at all, ever.

So I never went down that road, though later I applied to Bennington’s “low impact residency” poetry MFA program (“rhyming by mail” as one friend put it) and didn’t get in. Another friend applied to the Bennington MFA in memoir, got in, and was disappointed. So, altogether I’m glad I pursued poetry on my own terms and instead went to grad school for something that looks like it will be pretty marketable. (Check back in with my later in the summer about that.)Back to Vassar: I took two classes in poetry, namely modern and romantic poets. I took them at the same time, the first semester of my senior year. I think we were doing Blake and Pound at the same time when the US invaded Haiti, using the 10th Mtn. Division (whose home is the army base near where I grew up) as the lead force. The combination of those poets and that event nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I’m not kidding. But that’s not the fault of the professors.The Vassar English Department did me one solid on the poetry front: Eamon Grennan agreed to see me on a semi-regular basis and discuss my poetry with me. So I kind of had a non-credited tutoring arrangement with him, which I enjoyed. But I really got my poetry nurtured and improved by Helicon (tipping my hat to Sarah and Adriane). That was an amazing collective.
January 12, 2010 at 12:24am

Karen Schmeelk-Cone: As one of the scientist members of Helicon, it was great to be able to write and get encouragement since even getting into English classes was difficult. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but ended up in Expository Writing, I think in my Junior year. Interestingly taught by Dr. Joyce (I think) – he used a computer program which was somewhat like the web – you could link parts of your writing back to other parts or to things others had written. And the class used a program that seems a lot like FB – students commented back and forth during the class – so you could have 2-3 discussions at a time. And he was quite liberal with his version of expository writing. I remember coming up with a college catalog version of the requirements and courses in a fictional Homicide major. It was lots of fun to write.

But it really seemed like an impossible task to first get into English classes, then to achieve anything greater than a B if you weren’t an English major. Really one of my few frustrations at Vassar. But then, I was there for biopsychology and not writing.
January 12, 2010 at 10:18am

Yin Work in the Summer

Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.

It was good timing.

This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.

This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.

The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.

Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving  them.

No matter how I succeed, it won’t be as good as my fantasies of success.

My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.

Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:

The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.

“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.

 

 

 

 

A Few Notes About April, National Poetry Month, and Related Topics

A few notes about April, National Poetry Month, and related or tangential topics:

  1. April is the cruelest month because it is neither one thing nor another. Especially in Boston, it is neither the callused braw of midwinter, nor the soft (and — thanks to climate change — rainy) flower-fest of spring. In February we laugh at freezing weather, we don our extra layers and our vaselined lips as a matter of course. In April, lulled into a sense of false security, we open our petals into the sunny breezes, decide to take out the summer dresses and the short-sleeved shirts. And then freeze and shiver in temperatures that felt warm to us in February.
  2. T.S. Eliot is a fussy little busybody who thought that shirtsleeves were sordid.
  3. This April, I want the fields to lay fallow. I walk the wavering line between abandonment and overpruning of my poetic garden.
  4. The sap rises up and I write, write, write, accumulating pages and pages of white, letter-sized writing pad, the blue lines running undercurrent beneath my  handwriting, sometimes scrawl and sometimes legible.
  5. The sap rises up and I want to run through the bogs screaming, expounding. The sap rises up and I rise with it, and then I return to the couch, or the breakfast table, looking at the birds who congregate at the feeder outside, along with the squirrels.
  6. How much longer can I keep both the squirrels and the woodpeckers — two downy, two red-bellied, none red-headed, in spite of the red head of the red-bellied woodpecker — in suet?
  7. The worst thing to do with the seedling is disturb it. Let it lay there, half in and half out of the ground. But when they start to crowd thick and green (because you never obey the seed-packet’s instructions, always spacing them too far or too close), then you must pluck and choose, which one will stay and which will go. Otherwise, they all die out, competing for the same scant patch of dirt and sun and rain.
  8. The squirrels and the chipmunks — and your own damn cats — will likely devour many of the flowers, even in their bloom. Look at the crocus, who finally bloomed only to become scattered-pink the next day, scattered and tragic petals among their white-and-green-striped arrow-leaves.
  9. Plant them anyway.
  10. Trust the wisdom of the numbered list.
  11. Stay in touch, whether casual, constant, or connubial, with those who understand the importance of a turn of phrase, the difference between Joe Green and Guiseppe Verde.
  12. Take it moment by moment.
  13. Remember to be of service — in both the meaningful work and the work that pays the bills.

Polishing the Stone, Perfecting the Craft

I was quite regular with my posts but have gotten rather shy of late. In September I signed up for some sessions at this workshop. It’s the largest commitment of time and resources I’ve dedicated to a writing workshop of any kind since I was an undergraduate. I had a lot of trepidation about doing so. My disillusionment with the whole workshop-academia-publishing machine can probably best be summed up by a meme that was going around the Tubes a while back: Emily Dickinson attends a writing workshop.

On the other side of disillusionment, of course, is truth. On the other side is the way things are. And on the other side of it, I still care about writing. I still do it in spite of the paltry rewards because it’s a reward in itself, because writing — especially writing poetry — lets me see the world more clearly. After some years of healing in various venues, I’m ready to ever-so-gently consider how best to polish the stones I picked from the riverbed.

What I Learned During National Poetry Month 2011

  1. Haiku improves with practice.
  2. Poetry is real work.
  3. Sometimes work is gentle, easy, and takes hardly any time.
  4. Sometimes work is hard and grueling and difficult.
  5. Sometimes I forget to do things I said I was going to do
  6. Instead of hating on myself or giving up, I can just start doing them again.
  7. I am an imperfect poet.
  8. There is a difference between work and discipline.
  9. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”
  10. Writing can be a form of spiritual practice.
  11. Once upon a time I bloomed words from the tips of my fingers like a… word-blooming goddess with flowering fingertips. Now, I am embryonic. I need to be patient with myself.
  12. I am unreasonably jealous anytime another writer gets attention and accolades.
  13. Someone inside of me thinks all the attention and accolades should be long to ME ONLY ME IT’S ALL ABOUT ME DAMMIT.
  14. Ahem.
  15. I am reminded of my gentle, loving, sweet-natured kitty. She gives teeny mews most of the time and has an endless supply of soft kitty hugs and purring cuddle sessions for me. Until another cat invades our household.
  16. Then, sweet Tara turns into a yowling, hissing fiend of a cat. She flips like a coin: one moment hissing and attacking the INVADER, and the next minute turning to me with a look of pure innocence, asking “Mew?”
  17. Sometimes Tara can learn to share space with other felines, but only after a long and persistent campaign of desentization.
  18. In matters of poetry and accolades, I am more like my cat than I would like to admit.
  19. I am an imperfect human being.
  20. There is nothing wrong with giving my embryonic, easily threatened Inner Poet all the time and safety and attention she needs.
  21. WordPress’s post-dating feature is the best thing ever for procrastinators.
  22. I would like to do NaPoWrMo next year.
  23. Other poets have blogs.
  24. Actually, I already knew this.
  25. There is a very large and very important difference between writing and marketing your writing.
  26. I tend to forget that every task in the universe — even those done online — takes time.
  27. I find the notion of making numbered lists of disparate elements strangely entertaining.
  28. I can scrawl a haiku in a notebook while stopped at a traffic light.
  29. Doing so is not illegal, but checking my email is.
  30. Does that seem right to you?
  31. Nobody said that life was fair.
  32. Encouragement and accolades come from unexpected places.
  33. I should take none of them for granted.
  34. Daily posting is good for me.
  35. I feel curious and optimistic about the future.
  36. If one is not careful, one may post a single haiku that still contains typos.
  37. I have been alive for 37 years and some months.