Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today's Flint Walk: "My Lizard Likes Them"

In bright sunshine, I met Helen, a woman I'd seen walking from time to time. (It felt soothingly Old World that we shook hands; she looked like she might be in her 80s but has a fine strong handshake. I will mourn the loss of shaking hands if the flu epidemic forces us all away from simple physical gestures.) Helen was walking her dog Maggie, who Helen said is 17. We stopped to chat on the sidewalk east of Pierce School, looking at the caved-in spot where the big old ash tree used to be until a December ice storm got it.

We started talking about dandelions, which are just busting out all over the yard around Pierce's playground. Helen confessed she actually likes them and feels no need to root them out. The other day on her walk, she said, she ran into a woman with a handful of picked dandelions. "Oh! So you like dandelions, too!" Helen exclaimed. "No, I feed them to my lizard," the woman replied. "My lizard likes them." We smiled broadly at each other. What a great neighborhood!

I recalled how in Ohio's early springs my mom used to pick dandelion greens and cook them up in a cast iron frying pan with a vinaigrette dressing -- it was fabulous. But as I told Helen, I never have enough nerve to pick the greens from my own yard to try this dish, which was one of my favorites as a kid. I keep thinking about the parade of dogs on the street and the raccoons that obviously explore my back yard at night. When I was six and we moved from the country to the city, one of the things my mother mourned was the ready supply of "clean" dandelion greens in April.

I still might try it, though. Helen reminded me I could just wash them carefully. Next week probably will be too late -- the greens have to be young and tender.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wisdom from Rumi and Martin Seligman

Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" this morning on NPR was a reprise of a 2007 show about the Persian Poet Rumi -- Muhammad Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi al-Rumi, born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan.

His words -- often offered in the declarative couplet structure called the ghazal -- are startling relevant and refreshing. For instance, "Water the fruit trees and don't water the thorns."

That makes me think about psychology super-star Martin Seligman's notion of "Learned Happiness" -- the bracing follow-up of his earlier, gloomier but pathbreaking conceptualization of "Learned Helplessness." Seligman postulates, with scientific evidence in support, that it is possible to teach oneself to be happier, even in the face of life's challenges, disappointments, chaos, troubles. Seligman, a self-professed pessimist, doesn't offer his ideas in saccharine "don't worry be happy" naivete, but in a sober analysis that we can affect even our brain chemistry by actively choosing what we think and do.

Part of it is simply moving. Rumi was a dervish, who whirled while reciting poetry as, it has been suggested, a way of centering around the meditation. As Persian-American Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz said, paraphrasing Rumi's ideas, "If you don’t plow the earth, it’s going to get so hard nothing grows in it. You just plow the earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don’t ask exactly what’s going to happen. You allow yourself to move around, and then you will see the benefit."

When I see my neighbors gardening in these past glorious spring days -- all of us out there raking, planting, pruning -- and when we're all getting re-acquainted with each other's dogs on our daily walks -- I'm thinking we're moving resolutely, sweetly and gently toward happiness, resilient and intrepid even in the face of a scary and depressing year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

How I got to happiness tonight

Let's say I was 13, still living at home in Ohio with my parents, and imagining a life I might like. Suppose somebody told me that when I grew up, one night I'd be sitting in a spacious home with soft hardwood floors -- my home -- in a LazYBoy with two cats snuggled up together on my lap. Suppose somebody told me I'd be a writing teacher and that I'd just gotten back from having an hour-long massage that I can afford even in troubled times because I just sold a poem to of all places, the Educational Testing Service. Suppose somebody told me I'd have a husband who loved me and that I would fly across the country to my other home in LA several times a year. Suppose somebody had told me that I'd write a monthly column that people peruse while having breakfast at the Farmer's Market and sometimes I stealthily watch them read it and see them smile. Suppose I'd known that I'd turn out to be a grown-up woman who loves silver maples and drives a red car.

I would have said, "Wow, that sounds like paradise."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coming Down

What's the best way to celebrate the end of the semester?

Veg out with take out from Olive Garden and watch American Idol. No need to think, judge, ruminate, cogitate, obfuscate. Just masticate and vegetate.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thanks to Katie Alvord

...for her generous blog entry today about my novel, Night Blind, and my visit last week to Finlandia University in Hancock, MI. Here's the link to what she wrote: Alvord on Night Blind. Alvord is the energetic and prescient author of the still good-selling 2000 book Divorce Your Car: Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, Katie's book. I met her in the chapel of Hancock's tiny Lutheran college (it used to be Suomi) on Maunday Thursday...an auspicious day and place for making new literary friends. It's so encouraging to be reassured that my 2006 book, forged out of decades of turmoil and rejection, still has legs with new readers. Thank you, Katie!

A Perspective on Healing

" .....it is only by being willing to face, consciously experience, and go through our wound that we receive its blessing. To go through our wounds is to embrace, assent, and say "yes" to the mysteriously painful new place in ourselves where the wound is leading us. Going through our wound, we can allow ourselves to be re-created by the wound. Our wound is not a static entity, but rather a continually unfolding dynamic process that manifests, reveals, and incarnates itself through us, which is to say that our wound is teaching us something about ourselves. Going through our wound means realizing we will never again be the same when we get to the other side of this initiatory process. Going through our wound is a genuine death experience, as our old self "dies" in the process, while a new, more expansive and empowered part of ourselves is potentially born."

Paul Levy's "The Wounded Healer" in Pinchbeck, Daniel {ed.}
Toward 2012: Perspectives on the New Age, 2009 pg. 37.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Imperial Blues Soothe Blue Flint

Lil Ed Williams strode onstage at the UM - Flint theater with little fanfare tonight, and with his three side men, the Blues Imperials, played nonstop, exquisitely craftsmanlike riffs for an hour and forty minutes. His signature red fez bobbing, with a merry "Ya'll doing okay so far?" after every second song or so, Lil Ed worked his way through a classic delicatessen of tasty guitar plaints and satisfyingly familiar narratives about screwing up, losing women, hopping trains and desperately picking up odd jobs.

(Blues lyrics can slide into the ludicrous, of course --the most hilarious, well, the worst -- metaphor on tonight's playbill being "I gotta check my woman's fluids; somebody else is sticking a dipstick in her oil pan..." concluding, in wounded pride, "a good dipstick is hard to find." Oh lordy -- though maybe the auto theme was handpicked for Buick City) Myself, I prefer the simple, articulate, desolate "my woman left me and it's nobody's fault but my own..." which was how the best song of the night played out.

But Lil Ed didn't mess around, barely talking between songs, just calling out a key before launching into each musical entree. The most flamboyant he got was toe-walking on his red Converse sneakers and a mercifully brief foray down the aisles near the end of the show. What the enthusiastic, almost all-white, almost all late middle-aged, almost-full house crowd got was damn good music, a gift at the end of one of the best spring days of the year after one of the worst winters of the 21st Century. Flint isn't the only place that can benefit from the blues cure these days, but it sure is one of the places that needs it most.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adult Domestic

This may sound odd, but...I'm trying to grow up. The events of the past six months of my life plunged me into a strange new life cycle, in which in fear and panic I regressed and almost collapsed, the architecture of my self seriously compromised. The near loss of one's self is an extreme and frightening thing. If one makes it out of the tunnel alive, as I did, much is changed.

I was just standing out on the back porch in the last light of this gorgeous spring day and thinking something like, "I'm experiencing this differently." The air smelled good. I heard the robin doing that bubbly melody in the mulberry tree. The sky, deep blue overhead and lighter, cerulean behind the western line of roofs and budded-out maple trees, filled me with gratitude. I've seen it all before, but somehow I'm different now; a certain doubt-filled anachronistic naivete and denial has leached away. The words to describe it aren't coming out right; there are poems to be written about this eventually.

Another, similar moment. Today I was out in the front yard, raking. Since we bought this house I've hesitated to bond with it fully for some reason, and that means I've almost never treated its yards, front or back, with the proper care, leaving the mowing and snow removal to a GM retiree who'll do everything that needs to be done for $25 a pop here and there. But today I was raking it myself, systematically and serenely making little piles of dead grass and sticks, leaves left from October. Putting them into the big brown lawn bag, bending, breathing, raking. It felt like an adult thing to do: taking care of my own piece of earth, doing what needs to be done. Most of my life I have not felt like an adult, for whatever reason, as if I didn't have what it takes, couldn't make a convincing case that I met the criteria. But today, raking quietly in the April sun, my life re-arranged by crisis and recovery, I felt peacefully, tentatively whole. Quietly, unsensationally grown up.

Monday, April 13, 2009

900 Pages to a Cowardly Ending

Disappointing Doggies
I even bought the large-print edition of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle so that my aged eyes could stay with all its 900 pages. David Wroblewski is a graduate of Warren Wilson College, also my MFA alma mater, and he's currently our biggest celebrity, his book about the mute son of dog breeders an Oprah selection and still on the best sellers' list. I wanted to celebrate it, and him.

And I was making progress conquering my insomnia and the last dregs of a hard winter of recalcitrant anxiety and withdrawal from a nasty drug named Klonopin, so it seemed delightful if I woke up in the middle of the night not to stress out, but simply to breathe deeply, reach for the fat novel at my bedside, snuggle up to a pile of my favorite pillows, and escape into the life of dogs.

So, for the first few hundred pages it worked -- I thoroughly enjoyed the boy's relationship to his dad and the kennel full of soulful canines, one of whom, the charming Almondine, gets her own point-of-view chapters from time to time.

But then hell on wheels, the thing turned dark, darker, darkest -- and though I kept with it right to Page 899, the ending drove me to the brink of derangement. Yes, there was at least one moment, staring at 4:03 a.m. on the night stand, that I considered maybe just a teenie half of a Klonopin. Wroblewski, if I'd fallen off the wagon I'd have blamed your hopeless ass. My saner side, the kind that knows how to separate myself from a disappointing piece of writing (oh students, you've trained me so well) won out and I'm still K-free. But PUHLEEZE! I want a little hope after 900 pages. I want good to triumph and evil to at LEAST be found out.

Oops, Wrong Dogs
A question: has the Quentin Tarantino approach overtaken our best writers? Did Reservoir Dogs somehow get mixed up with the Sawtelle Dogs?

And another question: does my wish for a different ending make me rub-ish and unsophisticated? Are the Warren Wilson alums supposed to prove our mettle with unrelentingly bleak assessments of the human condition?

I say no and no. I'm too old to seriously convince myself that being jaded and cynical is the route to cool. I want relief from reflex pessimism, which does no good. I want suggestions that all this pain and travail means something: I want acknowledgement of life's complexities and rich exploration of how something matters. And while our ultimate fate is dust, along the way we struggle for justice and truth and, dammit, hope. It's hard enough to find all that in actual daily life: I was very disappointed to find not even a little in Wroblewski's final pages.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I'm still here

Resurrected, in bright sun at Big Mac

It's about time I check back in and clarify that I am still here and still alive and, on this eve of Easter, I'm feeling somewhat resurrected myself after a long, hard winter. I'm 25 pounds lighter, emotionally re-adjusted and physically purged. And apparently back to almost full health.

And just got back from a sweet writing gig at Finlandia University in Hancock, in the UP. I'm writing this from a motel room on the strip in St. Ignace -- where it's blessedly quiet in this off-season weekend. My hosts at Finlandia were wonderful; the audience in the chapel for my Thursday talk and reading was attentive and literate. Thanks to Suzanne for arranging everything and to Lauri Anderson for the picnic ham, beans and pecan pie around the kitchen table.

They put us up in a quirky little guest house on the campus where we pushed two metal single beds together in the hot top floor bedroom for one of the best night's sleeps we've had in ages. The next day Suzanne took us for a drive to McLain Park, where we stepped over piles of late ice in the sand and soaked in the brilliant sun -- a bright liquid light that is different than Flint. Then on to Calumet, where we paid tribute to the arch of the Italian Hall, all that remains of the Christmas Eve tragedy when 73 were killed, trampled and suffocated on the staircase after somebody criminally yelled "Fire." I love the architecture in the old mining towns -- that orange sandstone that doesn't crumble.

I feel like I reclaimed a bit of my writing mojo in the UP -- a fine place to do it -- and I'm very grateful.

The Opera House in Calumet
The Arch of the Italian Hall, Calumet
Ice on the Beach at McLain Park, Hancock