Thursday, November 30, 2006

Freedom of Speech vs. The Insufficiently Caffeinated Poetry Teacher

It's an evil day when there's no coffee in the teacher's room at 8:20 a.m., on a morning so cold you can see your breath in the elementary school parking lot. It's a bad omen.

You've brought a "fun" lesson plan--a poem called Sweet Like a Crow, by Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) which one of your adult poetry students turned you on to the other night in class. Adult students are so great. They rarely poke each other with their pencils or make deliberate farting noises while you are introducing a poem. They are diligent and attentive, and never beg for poems about ice hockey.

Anyway, "Sweet Like a Crow." Some sample lines: "Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed/Through a glass tube,/Like someone has just trod on a peacock,/Like wind howling in a coconut,/...Like a pig drowning,/A bone shaking hands,/A frog singing at Carnegie Hall.../A dolphin reading epic poetry to a sleepy audience.../Like an angry family pushing a jeep out of the mud,/Like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle/Like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/And someone walked through the room in ankle bracelets."

It's a perfect teaching poem, almost as if Michael Ondaatje had been a poet in the schools himself! Of course you had to cut any references to sex, and edit out the opening epigram, which gave a political slant to the poem, thus changing its meaning. You don't like doing that, but after years of teaching kids, you can child-proof a poem as effortlessly as a mother of ten can throw together a casserole.

These two fourth grade classes are larger than usual because a third fourth grade class is being split between them. But the first class goes well anyway; the students have fun, they write well, and even though one young man is on his fourth out of five poems about ice hockey ("It's all I think about," he explained earnestly,) everything is good. Except that there has been no coffee yet this morning, and the only place you want to be in the classroom is directly below the big noisy heater.

Second class starts out well also; you have the kids give thumbs up or thumbs down as to whether they think a particular image is "sweet" or not. This is a great opportunity to talk about oxymorons and synesthesia; this is Walnut Creek, with a top-notch school system and an international body of students.

The only problem is that the classic example of oxymoron that you usually use is "military intelligence." After a very negative experience at this same school the Wednesday morning after the '04 election results aka coup d'etat were announced, you have learned that it's best to separate your political opinions from your work, even if you are a poet. So you come up with "hot ice," which is lame, but sort of works.

Then you do the group poem on the board, and they contribute similes, from the banal, "It sounds like popcorn popping," to the beautiful, "Like whales making sweet conversation with each other."

Then a little boy named Reda raises his hand, and when you lean in to hear his idea, he whispers, "It sounds like a bomb."

At this point you notice that you are really missing that cup of coffee that you didn't get yet, because your brain is not working. Plus the regular teacher has left the classroom for a few minutes (probably to go to the bathroom, teachers are generally more vigilant than air traffic controllers.) She has left an aide in the classroom with you and the 35 children, an aide who can now witness the class getting restive and noisy and you not keeping good enough control.

Although you believe in democracy and free speech, you do not always practice what you preach. Instead you say flatly, "No bombs."

When another kid starts to protest, you cut him off as well. "No bombs, no guns. Period."

Of course they immediately start bargaining. This is what kids do, because they don't have money, or driver's licenses--the only power they have going for them is their inexhaustible energy which always wins out in the end, since your own energy has been proven to be all-too-exhaustible. And also because it's fun, and, face it, they don't have much better to do on a Thursday morning during poetry class. So they bargain, they wheedle, and they try to wear you down; experience has shown them that occasionally they can slip one over if they do.

"What about if the bomb went off underwater and nobody got killed except a bunch of fish?"

"What if it was a laser gun that only shot aliens?"

Nine-year-old Lauren comes up to you and narcs on her table-mates, "You said no bombs or guns, so they're writing about grenades and knives." Believe me, there is nothing and no one more strategic than a pre-teen girl. If there is a loophole they will find it and turn it into the Shroud of Turin. Ask me how I know.

You can hear your voice rising. "No guns, no bombs, no grenades, no knives, no violence. Can't you guys think of something else to write about?"

But no, now that the topic has been introduced and declared off-limits, they can't. They want explosions, big bangs, stuff blowing up, war, sirens screaming, fiery car crashes, weapons of mass destruction.

Your own 11-year-old nephew, writing a letter to his 11-year-old penpal, a girl in England, wrote, "I like war. What do you like?" At the time you'd suggested he amend the sentence to "I like reading about war," or "I like video games about war," or even "I like military history," because, as you'd gently explained, "You wouldn't really like war if you were in it. Like if a bomb were falling on your house, you probably wouldn't like that. You just like learning about wars that took place in the past."

"Okay," he'd agreed. He didn't have an axe to grind, like his perimenopausal, aging hippie auntie. He was just trying to tell this sweet little English girl about himself as instructed, and the honest truth was, he thinks he likes war.

So now the regular teacher comes back to the classroom and the aide narcs on you and the kids, "They were rude, they were disrespectful, they wouldn't stop talking..."

You feel compelled to interject, "Oh, they weren't that bad." Whose ass are you trying to save anyway?

Then, to save relations with the aide, you add gratuitously, "I live in Oakland, and this would be nothing over there."

You don't say that there are loud popping noises outside your bedroom at night, which could be firecrackers, and could be cars backfiring, and could be guns, because you sense that this would not help build your case, whatever case it is you want to be building.

You also do not confess that last night you went with your friend to see Casino Royale, the new Bond movie, and screamed delightedly for the first 20 minutes which featured a very long chase scene during the course of which several cars crashed, buildings exploded, and people got hurt and killed in colorful ways. You do not confess that you squeezed your friend's hand and shrieked like a teenager on a roller coaster at all the destruction, the incredible stunts, the indestructible Bond getting practically run over and abused in every possible way like Wile E. Coyote, and emerging at the end with a few cuts and scratches and a new white dress shirt, because you sense that this would complicate the conversation in interesting ways, but perhaps not lead to the accomplishment of your educational objectives within 50 minutes.

You have lost track of your educational objectives and are wishing desperately for coffee.

"Well, in Walnut Creek the standards are higher," the aide explains firmly, and she's not being mean, she's just saying what's so, and she's also defending her integrity in reporting to the teacher what she saw.

You realize you've blown it again and skulk back to helping individual kids who, of course, have not quit bargaining, and have added that special fourth grade whine to their voices. "Well, if it was an alien? and he had a ray gun? and he only shot bad guys? but on this particular day he made a mistake and blew up the whole earth? would that be okay?"

And then you hear yourself making a speech. You did not intend to make a speech, but there you are, standing up and using your big tall body and your big loud voice, and your ugly morning frown lines, and your heritage as the daughter of a woman who stubbornly hung a poster which said "War Is Not Good For Children And Other Living Things" on the front door of your house, even decades after the conflict in Vietnam was declared over.

You always thought that was a stupid poster, condescending in its obviousness: War is not good for children. It's best not to brush your teeth with gasoline. No one likes to be eaten alive by piranhas. Duh.

But, obviously, in your middle age you have turned into your own mother--it was bound to happen--and so you make a little speech about how war is not a video game, it is a very terrible thing where people get hurt and killed, even children, and how would you feel if someone in your family were killed, and it's not that they can never write about the subject of violence, because it is an important topic, but when they do write about it you'd like them to understand that it is something that causes great suffering.

And then you sit down, and apologize for interrupting the poetry reading and they look at you somewhat blankly, as children do when adults have just gone off on them, like "Thank goodness that's over, wonder what she was talking about?" and the regular teacher who has been teaching for 40 years and has perfect control of the class says, "Angela, read your poem." And Angela Guo, who comes from Hong Kong and speaks English as a second language, and has memorized a speech from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (in fourth grade!) stands and reads,

The Feeling of Sadness

Sadness feels like your own soul wanting to leave your body,
Like departing from your home
And you can never return again,
Like saying 'good-cye' to your mother
When she has to go to heaven,
Like the pain in a wolf's heart
That makes it howl at night..."

"That was wonderful, Angela," you say when she has finished. "Can I have a copy?" Of course she makes one for you right away because she's a stellar student who will probably end up doing something amazing in life while these violence-obsessed boys will be lucky if they get a clue by the age of 18 and manage to avoid going into the Army.

But this is also none of your business, and class is over, and you stop by the Teacher's Room on your way out, and miraculously it smells of coffee, and you pour yourself a cup, and even if there is only 1% milk to put in it, and 1% milk is an abomination unto the Lord, you pour it in anyway, and are grateful.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


There was frost on people's wondshields in Walnut Creek. It got down into the thirties last night. I can hear my New England family jeering, but I have news for you guys: try it with thin blood, no insulation in your house, no long underwear, and an anemic space heater. Then call me a wuss.

Theresa mentioned the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had cancer of the jaw as a child and was deformed as a result--I went to the bookstore and read it, was impressed, but not floored by the style. On my own I remembered Jimmy Santiago Baca's A Place to Stand which is an incredible account of having a Bardic initiation in the form of solitary confinement in a state prison. It's long, but so beautifully written I can't pass it up.

I also love Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a bio-mythography by Audre Lorde, although I worry that it could be dated. Luan Staus, the proprietor of Laurel Bookstore, helped me by sharing a list of books a professor at Mills uses in his non-fiction class. Thank God for outr local independent bookstore, which is a community clearinghouse, cultural playground, meeting-place and much more, thanks to Luan's joy in her work.

Great poetry class last night at Writing Salon. They are a very sensitive group of students who surprise me with their brilliance. I brought in poems by Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton and Kevin Young. Talked about the poet as universe-creator, "poesis," world-making, God creating the world with His (sic) word. Last night I dreamed I was searching and crying for God, and woke in the morning with the words to Shazam's song "Holy" running through my head.

I've noticed that when I keepGod first and foremost in my mind during the morning commute, there is magically light traffic. Honestly. It just happens. It was great time teaching the fifth graders at Murwood today. They are smarter than we adults are and that is just a fact. We were talking about oxymorons, and one girl came up with "Dangerous Safety." I asked her permission to steal it for a poem myself.

I'm supposed to go hang-gliding Saturday with my friend David, who has a coupon he has to use up by year's end. (Dad--if you're reading this--don't worry, it's baby hang-gliding, only about three feet off the ground or something. The worst thing I can do is turn an ankle.) See How We Almost Fly indeed!

Meanwhile, have looked up volunteer outfits--my sister is right, they all want you to have applied back in May or something. May! Who was thinking about Christmas back in May? Now I'll resort to writing my friends in Mexico and begging for help.

I've been reading Jelly Roll by Kevin Young, a young African American poet, very much influenced by the blues. I love him! At his best, he's a miracle of concision and music (not all the poems in the book are his best.) I wish it would get warmer. G said he heard some guy talking on Charlie Rose last night about our energy future who predicts we will be running completely on renewable sustainable fuels by 2050. I'll be 92 then. Wonder if I will live to see it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

So the space heater I bought last year for $60.00 at Target has not been working and my room is the approximate temperature of the inside of someone's refrigerator. And the guy from PG & E isn't coming to light the pilot light until Thursday because of course it only occured to me to call them AFTER it got cold, when 9,000,000 other people are on line ahead of me.

And I'm on my fourth cell phone in six months from Anthony, the poor guy who sells them down in Emeryville because I keep breaking them, dropping them, spilling water on them, keeping the batteries charging all night long which kills the batteries...and he keeps offering me better, more sophisticated cell phones; "This one you can take pictures with," "This one has an FM radio and a videocam," "This one will do your laundry, and write the essay you're halfway through..."

And I say, "Anthony," (I'm sure he regrets the day I ever darkened the threshold of his little shop,) "Anthony, I don't care if it takes pictures or not. I just want something that won't break." It seems to me that I ask very little of my appliances--perhaps too little. All I want is for them to turn on when I need them.

Maybe appliances are like men and they like it when you make exotic demands on them, because it strokes their egos and makes them feel like Prince Charming. Perhaps my problems with electronics and my romantic woes can be traced to the same fatal flaw in my personality. Whatever.

What's true is that I spent the day partly at Target, buying another space heater, because they won't repair my old one on the premises and I need some heat in my room or I won't be able to take my clothes off tonight, and the rest of the day standing around at Anthony's repeating, "I want a NEW battery. Not a used one. I'll pay for it. I want a NEW bsttery," while he scrounged around among the boxes, where of course there was not a single new battery that fit my phone.

Meanwhile, the department head at New College asked me to teach a class in Memoir, which I'm very excited about. I've got to write a syllabus by December 10 (Help! How do you write a syllabus?) and meanwhile I'm having fun pondering all the choices of books I can have the students read.

I know I want them to read a wonderful book by Martha Beck called Leaving the Saints about her relationship with the Mormon church, and how she found her own kind of spirituality. And I found another great book at the bookstore today called From Leadbelly to Mozart, by Ernest J. Gaines, about how he came to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying. I'm thinking of Sharon Doubiago because she's such a stylist, I'm thinking of Teaching Lolita in Teheran, I'm thinking...any suggestions?

Meanwhile, my brilliant and organized sister gave me a great idea for a writing exercise to do with the students and also gently informed me that the end of November was possibly a little late in the day to start trying to arrange an overseas volunteer stint for Christmas. Point taken, but I'm still going to make inquiries because things DO have a way of happening for me at the last minute--it just seems to be the way my life happens. In fact, I discovered my favorite writer, Grace Paley, on a table full of bargain books in Cambridge, Mass. when I saw the title of her wonderful book of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and picked it up and thought, "That's me!"
I want to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's volunteering, preferable out of the country, preferably at an orphanage, but if I can't do that on such short notice, then Habitat for Humanity or something.

I've been thinking about this for awhile, but haven't made any plans, other than to google, "Volunteer Orphanage." Plenty of stuff comes up, too much of it connected to evangelical Christian organizations, but enough not. It's almost an embarrassment of riches; I don't know where to begin.

Christmas has always been a tricky holiday for me--I don't want to go back East and watch y nephews and nieces open presents, I don't have memories of a tradition around it, I dislike being cold, in the snow, etc. My best Christmases have been very low-key--a Chinese restaurant and a movie, the classic Jewish Christmas. My Dad and I joke about it on the phone.

This year I'd like to get out of town, go somewhere other than the East Coast, have an adventure. With any luck, G will be in Atlanta with his mother and brother and sister...leaving me really to my own devices. New Year's I usually spendon an Interplay retreat, which is usually in Santa Rosa. This year they are doing it in Sedona, Arizona. I could go alng on that, but honestly, it would be laziness on my part. I want to do the volunteer thing, it's just challenging to find the right organization and do all the hooking up, especially when everything is on-line these days.

I remember when I filled out the application to be a VISTA volunteer way back in 1981. In the olden days, before the Internet. I'd found a brochure somewhere on my college campus, filled it out, attended one informational meeting, and then they called me, last minute, to say I was in. I had two days to pack up all my stuff and fly to Florida. Since I was 22 years old and my stuff was some clothes, a manual typewriter, and a yellow backpack, it was a relatively easy proposition. And the year was life-changing. In fact, every time I've volunteered I've always gotten back way more than I could have dreamed. It's a cliche but it's true.

Now, to find a place that will take a last-minute procrastinator...

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Necessary Hollow Space vs. Depression

The D word has haunted me throughout my life. When I was younger I flung myself violently at experience--any experience, the more intense the better--in an effort to outrun it. As I got older I began to simply run out of gas, and depression caught up with me on a physical level. What had once been just mental torment became very physical, draining all energy, leaving me so weak that standing up from a chair made me feel as though I would black out.

Through it all, I kept working. I missed a day here and there, and I lost a few jobs due to lateness (inability to sleep = inability to get out of bed,) but mostly I gritted my teeth and kept showing up to teach regardless of how shitty I felt. In many ways having to work saved my ass. It at least gave me something to think about other than my own pain, and provided me with some self-esteem and positive energy. I would have hated myself that much more virulently if I had not been able to work.

Now that I'm recovering from the major crash of '04/05 which laid me out flat, I have tried to change my habits. I HAVE to exercise--a lot. I HAVE to eat a lot of protein and dark green vegetables and avoid sugar. It's not about looking cute, it's about having a life. I may need to take medication for a long time, maybe forever. I can deal with all that.

What's most difficult for me right now are the little soft addictions I've used over the years to numb out and cope--not drugs or alcohol, nothing that exciting--not even food, really--but numbing my brain with trivia. For instance, today I let myself get lost in a bookstore. I sat there reading for hours and hours--and when I'd finished the book it was 9 p.m. I'd been in the same chair for 5 hours. Not so bad, you might say, but not so good either, when I do it in order to disappear from my own life.

The Internet is addictive too, especially celebrity gossip sites and playing Sudoku online. I can waste the better part of whole days, drifting in a kind of miasmic haze, especially when there are urgent challenging new things I want to get to, like signing up to volunteer abroad, or plunging into a new project. Mostly it's stuff around the house that feels overwhelming; simply sending out the kids' Chanukah presents on time (gifts have been bought, but then the work of finding wrapping paper and boxes, and tape and scissors, and completing the whole project...not)

I procrastinate paying bills, even when I have the money. I don't know why. It's like a way of playing with hurting myself in a mild form; not really badly, just the petty little pricks and pinches of not taking care of business. Maybe I am playing with the depression, now that I've been in remission for a year and a half, testing to see who is stronger, me or it.

The recognized cure for depression is movement. Physical movement is essential, but also moving forward in life, engaging, singing, dancing, creating, cleaning, throwing out, giving away, giving, talking, moving.

The "problem" is that being a poet requires stillness. It requires a willingness to be empty, to feel empty anyway, which is uncomfortable and unpleasant. My ego HATES to feel empty. My ego feels important and desirable when my dance card is full; when the phone is ringing, when I am earning money or doing good or looking good, scoring points out in the world.

A day or two of emptiness, no work, no social dates, and I start thinking furiously about how to "fix" my life; vounteer, take a course and become a bartender, go to therapy, join a 12-step program, write this or that or the other grandiose ambitious project--anything to escape the deadly sense of time passing and nothing to show for it.

Doing nothing is the hardest and the most essential. Allowing for that emptiness and then not filling it with either "worthy" activities, or "unworthy" addictions--letting the stillness speak. I suck at it. It scares me. It bothers me. All my demons come out to play when I am alone in an empty house. Nevertheless.

I'm on a creative streak right now. Good for me. But it's like waterskiing on top of a tsunami--at any moment I can fall into the void, be submerged by the very element I'm trying to ride. I don't want to be rescued from this work, I love it and it's mine to do. But it's hard to keep my balance while I'm in it.

It's so easy to get lonely, easy to overwork or underwork, easy not to stretch and move when the weather is getting cold, easy to eat sugar when it's the holidays, easy to spend hours and hours looking at clothing catalogues (my particular favorite brand of "porn") or reading other life-diminishing media.

If I had a real job, and kids, maybe I wouldn't be so vulnerable to these time-wasters because I couldn't afford them; maybe just keeping abreast of my responsibilities would consume me and leave no idle time for the devil to creep in. But for better or worse I've set up my life so as to have not that many responsibilities, and even my minor, auntly duties I let myself slip on--sometimes the kids get their presents late.

My mother was a punctilious person, responsible to a fault. For her an unmet obligation was the end of the world and she exerted tremendous stress on herself and everyone else so that the trains would run on time. So much stress contributed to her chronic illness.

Trying to avoid her fate, I've gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Emptiness and idleness pose their own challenges. I have to summon the will to ride the twin horses of creative fire and psychic water from a deeper place than obligation, because I rejected those dictates at a very young age.

I know that filling every moment with activity is not the answer. I know that being uncomfortable doesn't mean there's necessarily something wrong. It might just be the material working in me, digesting. At the end of a "do-nothing" day I might get an insight, a line for a poem, an idea that turns out to be essential. It's hard to be patient with the time my nature requires in order to unfold.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Day.

Dreamed last night I had a love-child with a giant sea-turtle. The baby was not viable--they said it had bad pneumonia and they would have to kill it, and they did. With knives. I had blood spattered on me and was wearing bright flourescent green eyeshadow. Red and green.

I was upset about the baby, and exhausted. I was teaching that weekend at Esalen, but I also had to get the turkey in the oven for Thanksgiving. I asked Gillian if I could borrow her cell phone and she said sure but I was so tired I could not dial. I kept trying to press G's number to tell him to go over my house and put the bird in the oven, but I kept falling over before I could press the buttons on the phone.

Woke with relief--bright sun, gorgeous day. Mental note: no more caffeine after 1 p.m. It's the first time I've dreamed that I myself had a baby in a long time--I often dream about babies, but since I've passed into my mid and now my late forties, it's usually someone else giving birth to them. There was one great shot (in the dream) of my lover, the sea turtle swimming, waving its flippers.

Perhaps one of the messages of the dream is that it's best to mate with other mammals. Or maybe a reflection of the fact that I never did get my swim in yesterday, I just worked like a ned at the computer all day, polishing up the one-act play I wrote in boot camp and then emailing it to various theatre/dancer/director friends. .

This morning G and I went out and played tennis, with $5.00 rackets bought at the Goodwill. Neither of us are all that good--he's rusty, and I never had any skills to begin with--so we just ran around the court, lobbing balls at each other, trying to get a volley going, and having fun. You can learn a lot about a person from playing a game with them. I learn about G that he's fair, considerate, and a team player. I learn about myself that I still have some character flaws that could use some work.

For instance on difficult shots, when I have to run for the ball, G says encouragingly, "You can make it," and then I do. When I lob the ball high high in the air and it sails overhead and out of bounds, he says, "Wow, you could show movies on that flight."

I, on the other hand, use language inappropriate for courts which border on a playground where young children are taking turns on the swings.

It's a beautiful fall day: red and yellow leaves, browning at the edges and turning crispy. Clear bright sky--it rained last night and washed the air. Lake Merritt looked startlingly blue. The warmth of the sun almost feels like summer, except that the leaves of my fig tree are turning yellow and brown--in a month they'll all be gone. I ate the last two figs from the tree today. The persimmons came and went. The rains have begun. The days are short.

I'm grateful for: HEALTH, first and foremost. My own health, to be able to make a fool of myself running around a tennis court, and have something left over afterwards.

I'm grateful that my father is alive and in good health and enjoying his life more than ever in his seventies. I'm grateful that my family is all okay, no one dying of any incurable horrible diseases right at the moment. For my friends who are going to come over in an hour and eat and drink and play music and celebrate with me. I'm grateful to whomever invented Prozac so that I could actually live my life instead of just suffering through it, and very grateful to my doctor for diagnosing and treating my depression when I was so used to it I wasn't even hoping I could get better anymore.

I'm grateful for Wing It! and for Interplay, grateful I have a place to go and people to engage in deep serious play. I'm grateful for New College and Writing Salon, grateful that I get to do work that's in line with my passions, grateful for my sweet students, and for the community of artists around me (you know who you are,) whose creativity nourishes my own.

I'm grateful for jazz and blues, and quilts, and dark chocolate and champagne and hot tubs, and good books, and wonderful movies. I'm grateful to the writers and actors on The Sopranos. I'm grateful for Harbin hot springs, and that I live near the ocean and in Oakland, a city I love. Grateful for food, hot water, a swimming pool, this computer I can write on. Grateful to still be here, after coming through so many storms.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I finished, I finished, I finished, I finished. Phew! It's pretty good! At least, I think so right now. It could be a ten or fifteen minute one-act play. Maybe even longer, if I work on it. But the basic elements are there, it's funny, and there's a lot of spectacle. Even though it's satire, I uncovered some scary territory for myself and plowed through it. Glad that's over. Now it's time to clean the house, buy turkeys, pay bills, and go swimming. Take care of business.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I hurt, I hurt, I hurt...

Today was the third day of this "playwriting boot camp" at Playwright's Foundation that I signed myself up for. The idea was to write a play in four days. Every day we bring in work and workshop it for four hours. Then I've taught; Saturday morning, and tonight, Sunday night. More workshops. My back and butt are now shaped exactly like the chairs I have been sitting in for hours on end. Coffee is bubbling through my veins instead of blood. Don't ask me what my play is about; I have no idea.

the good thing about having to write a play under these intense conditions (and we were given some things to include in the play, like a haunted house, a grove of dynamic trees, a camera, and a few other things I won't mention, plus we're supposed to be borrowing themes from hamlet and from our own autobiographies...) But anyway, the good thing about this intense schedule is that it forces a deep dive. I can definitely feel myself skirting the edges and even venuring into some bloody psychic territory.

The bad thing is what it does to your body.

I feel like a vampire, because I haven't been in or seen the sun in days. My back huirts, my ass hurts, my head hurts, my teeth hurt. I want to swim for miles and miles, I want to soak in a hot bubble bath and use the peppermint-chamomile scrub I got in New England, I want to walk around the lake, I want to bring my laundry up from the basement and fold it and put it away, and water the plants and pay bills.

Tuesday, I keep telling myself. Tuesday it will be all over. Meanwhile I have these 23 new pages of playscript that may or may not turn out to be good, but are definitely different than what I would have written if left to my own devices.

And I've had the experience of being a student again, which I was craving, and I got to be scared about approaching a big writing challenge, and do it anyway. The first day when we had to show up with ten pages, I really felt nervous. I hadn't known if I could do it, and I didn't know if what I'd written was any good, and I was about to expose myself to a bunch of strangers.

That's what my writing students go through when they sign up for a class through The Writing Salon. That's why I needed to experience that again, to be pushed out of my comfort zone into a learning place.

I like the teacher, Dominic Orlando. He's rumpled and intense and sincere. He seems to know what he's talking about. I like the other students. They're smart and brave and willing to be weird. The first day or two I noticed my judging mind come up a lot. I didn't like the other students so much then. As I've gotten more comfortable and we've all seen each others' work, I'm liking them more and more...funny how much more likeable people become when I feel secure.

Tonight I was so tired after teaching at The Writing Salon, that my car drove itself home from San Francisco. There was one nano-second when I felt my eyelids closing and the wheels beginning to drift...I caught myself and forced myself into wakefulness for the rest of the way home.

"Playwriting boot camp." Sheesh.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Eating Cheaply and Well

Performed with Wing It! last night at an improv festival in San Francisco,with Phil, Cynthia, Melinda McLain, Elizabeth, Theron, Beth Hoch, and Penny Mann. We were one of three groups of improvisers. Great fun!

Phil did a rant about "deep pockets," and how artists are so smart but they don't know how to make money. Theron played his recorder, and that was beautiful. Melinda tried to play the piano, whose pedal was hanging by a thread. She tried for an hour unsuccessfully to get a screwdriver to fix it. I danced a lot, and honestly felt like a big dork, but that is the price you pay for this work: feeling like a dork, whether or not you actually look like one.

The audience loved us, judging by the enthusiastic comments/kisses/shout-outs of people as they left the space. Our theme was "Work and Play." I told the story G had told me, about the people standing on line for days to buy Playstation 3.

I think it's important in a blog about the creative life, to talk about surviuval issues: money, food, health, insurance, etc. I work free-lance. I have more free time than a person with a regular job, but earn less income. I also have champagne tastes on a beer budget--I like to go to the theatre, I love pretty clothes, I like going to Harbin (which is cheaper than Esalen, but still.) I like to take classes, and travel when I can.

I was lucky enough to receive some money in a divorce settlement ten years ago, and luckier still that at that same time a friend wanted to buy a house with me. We both put our lump sums together on a down payment on a big house, and I've been here ever since. She moved five years ago; I refinanced and bought her out and rent the other bedrooms, and that's one of the ways I afford life in the Bay Area.

I also get some help from my Dad, who has the philosophy that he'd rather give to his kids while he's alive than leave a bunch of money to the tax man. I'm confessing this because people reading this might be like me, and say "Why can't I do what she's doing?" which is something I tend to do whenever another artist is enjoying something I would like to have. I am privileged and it's not fair, and I'm grateful for the forces and factors that allow me not to have to work full-time right now.

That said, I also live fairly cheaply (but well.) This morning I had salmon burgers for breakfast: canned wild-caught Alaskan salmon, chopped onion, dark green leafy stir-fry mix from the farmer's market ($5.00 for two big bags which have lasted me two weeks,) and a diced carrot. Saute onion, carrot, and kale, chard, etc. Mix canned salmon in a bowl with one egg and a handfull of oatmeal (bought in bulk.) Form salmon into patties and fry up with the onions and greens mixed in. Mmm...

If I get sick, there's no workman's comp for me. I won't get paid for any classes I don't actually teach. Therefore, I try hard not to get sick. I eat my vegetables, drink water, and rest when I'm tired.

I'd rather buy canned salmon at Big Lots (a discount store) and save up for a trip to New York (or Haiti, or Malawi, or Romania, or) I buy too many clothes, but they are always on discount, or at a thrift store. I feed my addiction to magazines by going to Border's Books, sitting in an armchair, and reading them without buying any.

I don't care about my 13-year-old car, how it looks or anything, just that when I put the key in the ignition it turns over. I don't have a home decorating bug either--in fact I need prodding, support, help from friends and housemates to paint, or otherwise spruce the place up. I like having some space to do yoga in my living room, but the thought of spending a weekend going to Home Depot or doing house-y things makes me sad. I have never bought any real furniture; only a couple of rugs (which I love, and which were on deep discount,) a desk and some wooden file cabinets. The rest of what I have is donated/scrounged/left behind by housemates and friends who were moving.

Okay, I've procrastinated writing the ten pages for tonight's playwriting class long enough. Off to boot camp.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The problem with exercising, as my friend Phil said, is that it makes you tired. I taught three classes yesterday, went to an afternoon tea for women artists at Interplayce where there were two inspiring guests from India: a singer whose focus is on healing, who demonstrated for us how the sound touches down to the navel when she sings--a kind of vocal yoga. And a gorgeous young woman, Shirin--her parents didn't give her a surname on purpose, she is just "Shirin" which means sweet-- who does street theatre, political in nature, at marketplaces and community centers, and anywhere she can. She also has a theatre group in Washington, D.C., where it's actually illegal to do street theatre--you can be arrested for performing without a permit--so they crowd into any little space they can to bring relevant theatre to people.

Both women were very passionate about how their work is work for peace, healing, and social justice and not "just" art. The other women at the meeting were dancers and musicians, a visual artist, a filmmaker, and me...

Then I swam half a mile at the gym--there was enough chlorine in the water to choke a horse. When I went over G's house afterwards to watch The Sopranos, the fumes from my hair nearly knocked him over. I'm sure so much chlorine is unhealthy, but there's no exercise which quite feels like it gets every cell of my body like swimming does. I'm addicted to the immersion into another world.

Also, I like the steam room at my new gym, mostly because it is so diverse; often I'm the only white person in there, and very often the only native English-speaker. Last night I was heating up between laps with two women from Eritrea, who wore bathing suits with little skirts attached and chatted in their language; a young Asian couple, Korean or Chinese I think, but not sure, who were flirting in their language, and a few Latino men who were discussing politics in Spanish. At least I could understand some of what they were saying.

At my old gym, the jacuzzi and the sauna were in the women's locker room; you could go be naked, and there was the comfort of an all-woman atmosphere. I miss the luxurious sight of naked women...Here, the facilities are out by the pool area, and it's more social, more international and and more clothed.

I thought of the article I had just read in O Magazine (standing up, in Walgreen's) about Congolese women who have been systematically raped. After a rape, their husbands reject them, and the whole family--and then the whole country--falls apart. The courageous efforts of some women to change this, to at least remove the social stigma of rape from the traumatized victims.

I thought of sitting naked in hot tubs with men at Esalen and Harbin, how friendly and easy it is, how innocent we all can be with our soft vulnerable flesh. And how that softness and vulnerability is subject to so much cruelty. Why is sexuality such a gift, such a burden, such a matter of life and death in some parts of the world, and so casual in others?

Anyway, Phil is right, exercising does make you tired. It feels great to BE in shape, not so much getting there. And since I let myself fall out of shape, I'm now in the exhausting process of trying to get my 48-year-old body back where I like it...hence the half-mile work-out which ends up taking two hours because I have to warm up, and warm down and all that...

This morning I had to be out in Walnut Creek teaching 4th graders at 8:30 a.m., not my finest hour. The alarm went off at 6:30, I lay in bed, half-dozing, listening to Masankho in the bathroom. When I finally realized I HAD to get up, it was 7:45 on my watch, which I always set five minutes fast. Walnut Creek is 45 minutes away.

In all modesty, I think I could win a contest for fastest getting ready in the morning, if anyone ever wants to put one on. One minute for peeing, one minute to run hands through hair and decide it looks acceptable enough to get by without a dunk under the shower and the addition of more product. Either wear the velour sweatpants I sleep in, or strip them off fast and put on jeans, a bra, a gray sweater, a blue butterfly scarf that my sister-in-law gave me for Christmas three years ago.

One minute to fill up water bottle, grab a couple of string cheese sticks and a couple of carrots out of the fridge, run out to car, pull out and get going. On the way to work: eat cheese sticks, drink water (spilling some,) munch carrots, apply lipstick, pray for light traffic.

You can sit in meditation halls for a hundred years, getting to know the inner workings of your own mind; or you can be a chronically late commuter.

"Move out of my way, you CUNT!" I heard myself thinking viciously at a slow truck, which rumbled in front of me. Cunt? I NEVER ever ever use that word in real life. I hardly know that word. And yet there it was, spewing out of my mind in a self-righteous and completely unjustified fury.

I arrived at school with one whole big fat minute to spare which allowed me to pour a cup of teacher's-room coffee into a styrofoam cup, add some milk and gulp it down while racing to the first class. Phew!!

Now I'm home, it's 12:35, I'm bone-tired. I'll turn in for a nap before going out to perform with Wing It! tonight. Tomorrow night starts this playwriting boot camp which I signed up for--we got the instructions to write ten pages by tomorrow evening--I haven't written one, but I'm thinking I can use some of the stuff I scribbled when I taught a poetry class Tuesday night--or some of my free-writing from teaching Personal Essay class Sunday night, or from when I taught Memoir class Saturday morning.

I ordered two organic turkeys at the grocery store today, because there's going to be a horde of people for least five Wing-ers, and five or six friends from the rest of my life, and five or six of G's friends, (the harem,) plus a miscellaneous extra guest or two...usually my holidays are filled with lesbians, neighborhood kids, and ex-boyfriends or sort-of boyfriends. I miss the neighborhood kids, haven't had them since all the chaos and rip-offs of Ophelia.

Later: napped all afternoon. Now I feel MUCH better. G woke me at one point, calling from his car, in San Francisco:

"You have to write a poem about this. There are hundreds of people lined up outside this store where Playstation 3 will debut tomorrow. They want to be one of the first to shell out $600.00 for a video game. They have been sleeping on the pavement since yesterday and they'll sleep there tonight so as not to lose their place in line."

I said, "You should take a photograph of it."

"I would, but I don't have my camera with me."

I forgot to say that the really revolutionary thing about the kind of theatre we do--improv--is that it's so inexpensive. You don't need sets, or costumes, or even lights. You can do it anywhere. That's what Shirin, the Indian woman, was talking about. Making theatre an accessible mode of expression for everyone again. I love "real" theatre--I love to go to the Berkeley Rep, or the ACT and see a good show--I really love movies and even good TV. But the revolution comes when we realize we need nothing extra, nothing outside to entertain ourselve, just our bodies and voices and stories. That we alone are enough.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The gig yesterday with Wing It! was very moving. Elizabeth, Theron, Masankho, Enver, Penny, Beth and I danced and told stories for about 50 people gathered to raise funds to support a school in Mozambique. I learned about Mozambique; it was liberated from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Thirty-five percent of adults are HIV positive or have AIDS. Life expectancy for men is 37 years old, for women thirty-six. Per capita income is something around $350.00 a year. Unbelievable.

I improvised a poem about the first day of school. The slide show had pictures of bright, eager, shining faces of children sitting at desks, sharing textbooks. The teachers make copies of textbooks themselves. All the human potential of anywhere in the world, and they don't have the simple tools to manifest it--paper, pencils, books.


Last spring, Writer's Digest sponsored a writing contest. The Grand Prize was $3,000.00 and a trip to New York City to meet with editors and agents. I got all fired up and entered a bunch of poems. Greed functioned as good motivation, as I sent poem after poem after poem to them, conveniently paying entry fees with my credit card. I didn't keep track of how much I spent, but let's just say it was less than the yearly income for someone from Mozambique, but more than five movies with popcorn.

A few days ago, I got the letter. Out of 19,000 entries, my poem, "Snow" won an Honorable Mention. I read the letter twice to see if there was a line in it that said I'd won a few hundred dollars or so, but no such luck. However, I did tell my 7-year-old nephew Theo, who was the subject of the poem, and his mother reports that he is as proud as if he'd won the contest himself, and is going to bring the poem in to his second grade class for Show and Tell. Which is worth a million dollars to me.


New poem came easily today, between bouts of Sudoku-playing procrastination. So easily I mistrusted it, but emailed it off to my relatives and closest friends anyway. My Dad loved it, which is gratfying, if not exactly definitive proof that I'm on the right track. Ruth Schwartz liked it, which was something--she's usually my severest critic.

Laurie Wagner asked me at lunch how I cope with the frustration of trying to get See How We Almost Fly published for four years now, and accruing tons of rejection slips. She asked me if I get disheartened and think my poetry isn't good enough. I said, well yeah, sometimes I think it's not good enough, but individual poems keep getting published, and even winning awards, and that tells me I'm on the right track.

Even more importantly than that, though, and thank God for the instant gratification of email, is the response I get from my nearest and dearest. Their enthusiasm for what I'm doing carries me, and although I also want my poems to live in the bigger world outside my intimate circle, I've found that the actual moment when a poem appears in a magazine is often anti-climactic for me these days (the big exception to this rule is The Sun, of course.)

But the smaller literary magazines, the ones nobody reads except aspiring literati, don't do much for me. At the end of the day, it's the way this business of poem-making strengthens and enriches my relationships that's the big pay-off.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A working weekend. Yesterday, tsaught Suzy Parker's Memoir class at the Writing Salon for her while she's on leave; today perform with Wing It! for a benefit to raise money for a school in Mozambique and then teach again tonight at Writing Salon in SF. In between, G and I managed to squeeze in a movie date--we went to see Stephne Frears' The Queen, which was pretty good. Helen Mirren was wonderful, and oddly touching.

In some way her portrayal reminded me of my mother, of that generation of people who could not express their feelings and didn't think it was "appropriate"--who defended that choice with sarcasm or superiority, but who, underneath, hardly knew what her emotions were, and so was totally at their mercy.

I didn't think Prince Charles was well-cast--he seemed too young and too cute. Charles seems to me to have been an old man when he was thirty, and the actor playing him seemed too boyish. The script was subtle, and I really liked the way a slippery strategic tightrope was walked by the main characters--you hardly ever see people in movies discussing strategy when it doesn't concern guns or bombs.

It's not the best movie I've ever seen--G and I both gave it a solid "B" overall--but satisfying, and fun.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Last night I went out with Debby Fier, a new musician-friend, to hear Slammin, an a capella bodyjazz group perform at La Pena. They were ferociously wonderful! Keith Terry, the master of body rhythms, Zoe Ellis, Destani Wolf, Kenny Washington, and Steve somebody, the beat-boxer. Their work was a mixture of improvisation and jazz standards. All the hallmoarks of good improv were there--deep listening, risk-taking, play, fun, beautiful accidents, clean endings and transitions. They are playing at Yoshi's soon--check them out!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gorgeous day, but short. Woke to orange glow of sunrise through curtains. I went back to the pool and swam last night, too late, and slept fitfully. Getting into shape is an art, with timing, food, sleep, creative work, everything, to be managed creatively all around it.

I met with one of my New College students today, a lovely young woman in a cafe. "Do you write every day?" she asked me. "Religiously?"

"Well, um,"

She works a full-time job and gets up every morning at 6 to write. And her stuff is good. I'm impressed. I've been turning over a few ideas for personal essays and/or short stories in my head for months and not quite getting to them, and while a lot of poems have been written recently, there are even more ideas for poems that have not yet seen paper.

It isn't as if I think I have all the time in the world, either. One of the things that compels me to too-early submissions of not-ready-for-prime-time work is the fear that I'll be in a terrible car accident/plane crash/terrorist attack and my latest opus magnus will never see the light of day.

But no, I had to admit, I don't sit down and work at it religiously every day. The only thing I've got going for me is a kind of steady, snail's pace, keeping on keeping on thing. I'm a tortoise not a hare, and definitely not a disciplined monastic either. Yet, when the saddle is on and I've got a firm chompdown on the bit, I just keep going until the thing is done, come hell or high water.

When we were trying to get in shape two years ago, my friend Marci MADE me buy this book by Oprah's trainer, Bob Greene, in which he outlined this draconian regime of gym visits, squats, thrusts, weights, and jogging. Because I have no backbone, I plunked down the $20.00 for it, even though I knew I would never follow the program. Marci signed up for some kind of athletic bootcamp, where they made her do all kinds of terrible things like push-ups. She loved it, dropped ten pounds, got muscular, injured herself, and put the weight back on.

I slopwly and carefully swam a few more laps every day. It took me all summer but by the end of four or five months I too had lost ten pounds and was fit, muscular and fantastic. Then just as slowly, I reduced the frequency of my swims, ate a bit more, and imperceptibly at first, the ten pounds crept back onto me as well.

The moral: you're going to be dealing with those same ten pounds the rest of your life. This should be your worst problem.

And: everyone has their own style of attack. One is not essentially better than the other.

And: as they say in AA; "Keep coming back, it works!"


I went to the bookstore today to look for used quilting books to help me in my Gee's Bend quilt project. I found some old books on quilting, some with very beautiful pictures of quilts in them, but nothing that inspired me like the Gee's Bend work did. The quilts in these books were too tidy, their edges too meticulous, the stitches too invisible.

I liked the rawness of the Gee's bend quilts, their surprising color combinations, the wabi-sabi aesthetic of them. ("Wabi-sabi" is a Japanese term for art that is huimble, made with an awareness of the basic transience of all material phenomena, of simple materials, almost disappearing back into the earth from whence it came.)

I know I lack the technical skill to make a perfect polished quilt, but I'm not interested in it anyway; those quilts are already being made, by millions of industrious, talented quiltmakers all over the world. What I loved was the personality of the Gee's Bend quilts, and I don't know if I can do that myself, but I will try.

I want the same in my writing; plenty of people are smarter than me, have better vocabularies, more technical skill. I want something else, something simple and almost rough or awkward-feeling, but true. And the more technical polish I acquire (it's hard to avoid it, just in the course of reading and writing, and refining and wanting to be published,) the harder it is to preserve that essential simplicity. Teaching kids helps. They do it naturally--pair a breathtaking simile with a mundane observation. They're not afraid to be awkward because they don't know how it "should" be. And so they achieve authenticity, which is the most beautiful thing of all.

Out of all the literary influences I've absorbed over these past 40 years of being a passionate reader and writer, I hope the most pervasive has been the voices of elementary school poets.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

As I drove up Lakeshore Ave. last night the banner wavers were out in force, with their placards and pom poms. Election Day. So much hangs in the balance and I feel so out of it, headachey and fat and groggy. Yes, I voted for Angelides. No, I don't think he'll win. The one bright spot was getting to vote for my hero, Barbara Lee, as I do every time the opportunity arises. I am so proud to be from her district. She will go down in history as the only one in Congress with balls enough to vote against the madness in Iraq before it became fashionable.

I also voted for my friend, Rebecca "Reb" Kaplan, who will probably run for governor or and be very famous and powerful someday...

I remember when I was a little girl, I was so excited by the whole electoral process. I'd stay up election eve with my dad and together we'd fill in the boxes for all the electoral votes on the graph that the Boston Globe printed just for that purpose. We'd count up how many states went Democratic, how many Republican.

I remember my first political discussion; it was in the back seat of a car. I was sitting next to my friend, both us so young our little legs stuck straight out in the wide, '60s station wagon backseat.

"Who are you voting for?" I asked her.

"I'm voting for Goldwater because he has a pretty name. I think Gold Water sounds pretty."

"Oh, that's not a good reason to vote for him! I'm voting for Johnson because my daddy is voting for Johnson."

It was 1964 I was five.

The first presidential election I voted in was '76. Jimmy Carter. I was dubious as I voted for him, because he was a born-again Christian, and from the South, and I didn't know him, but he was the Democratic candidate. Turns out to be the best vote I ever cast (aside from all these votes for Barbara Lee.)

I came to love Jimmy Carter, and the years have only deepened my respect. I think he's been the best, most under-rated president we ever had. I think he was hoodwinked, blindsided, muzzled and tricked by Congress and a bunch of people playing dirty in Washington. Nevertheless, he kept his dignity, brokered the Camp David accords, maintained complte integrity in and out of office, and has done more good for the world than the rest of the jokers combined.

I talk like someone who is passionate about politics. I'm not, anymore. The zing went out of it for me when the 2000 election was stolen. Ever since then I have felt more like a bewildered passenger on a sinking ship of state than a citizen. I was always childishly attached to the idea that my vote counted for something. That everyone's vote counted. And now? I believe cynicism is just laziness using a more sophisticated vocabulary. Nevertheless, I have to admit, I feel deeply cynical about voting and elections in general.

Yes, I show up at the polls, clutching my Green Party brochure explaining all the measures and propositions that will lie ahead of me. And I put my ballot in the machine and I get my little sticker. And I don't trust anymore if the votes will be counted correctly across the nation, and I know no great leader is going to arise and save us.

I like Obama but I almost don't want him to run in '08 because I like him. He's so young and I can't even bear to think of what could happen to him. And Hillary Clinton doesn't strike me as electable--and I'm not sure I like her. I want to like her, because she's a woman. Is it important to like your leaders? Oh well, Massachusetts has its first Democratic African American governor--there's something to celebrate.


Yesterday was full--Wing It! rehearsal, then tea with Megan, then dinner with coke, then Running with Scissors with David McCauley.

At practice, Elizabeth told me brightly, "My out-of-town friends loved you in the show Saturday night!"

Immediately I thought to myself that her friends must not have seen much improv and were too easily impressed, because I hadn't been sure that the poem I made up was good at all. It's funny/painful to see how quickly I can dismantle a compliment.

I remember my grandmother, who was striking in old age, with snow-white hair and large blue eyes. Whenever people told her she was beautiful--which they did quite often, in my remembrance, she would retort, "You need to get your eyes checked!"

Take that!

After some play, we sat around and Phil led a discussion about what our "intentions" are when we perform. Susan said, "To make people laugh." Masankho said, "To create peace." Cynthia said (I'm paraphrasing badly) "To commune with other dimensions of reality."I said, "To make people laugh and subvert the dominant culture."

All (twelve) of us talked about it for a while. There's being present, and then there's Being Present. because of its riskiness, because the artist is creating on the spot, improvisation offers an opportunity for Presence, real Presence with a capital P to show up. (Regular performances offer that too, of course. In fact, the opportunity for Presence is always with us. It's just hard to remember that.)

Because improv artists are "on the spot," because everyone fears making a fool out of themselves in public, failing in front of others, the stakes are raised, and adrenaline starts flowing. This heightened awareness is the basis for spiritual practice (if one seizes it and uses it for that.)

At dinner, Coke confessed to feeling disappointed because her show had turned out so differently than she imagined. But I, in the audience, with no preconceived ideas of how it should have looked, saw how beautiful and powerful and vulnerable it was. I told her that, and at the same time I remember friends and relatives trying to console me after the performance of my play in NYC, when the lead actors kept forgetting and messing up their lines.

"I liked that," my cousin Jill insisted. "It was like real life, when people say"

"Oh, Jill, you're a doll, don't ever change--but it sucked!" was my response.

How easy it is to dish out forgiveness for imperfection, and how hard it is to take it.


Annette Bening is a very brave woman. She allows herself to look bad--really really bad--bad from the inside out, bad--to show us the absolute horror and pity of narcissism.

And she's my age and in this film, Running With Scissors, she looks really really old.

"Do I look that old?" I thought narcissistically in the dark, leaning next to David, both of us enjoying the 70s soundtrack (the soundtrack is worth the price of admission.)

Who's to say?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

SUN for the first time in days, beautiful sun!! I went up in the hills and smelled the fresh bay leaves, and the rich smell of freshly-rained-on grass. Mmmm...

The poems have been coming. My friend Don Helverson says this is my best work. I hope I can keep it up. Taught yesterday--New College--Personal Essay workshop. It was fun. I worked with Cheryl Strayed's essay "The Love of My Life" which appeared in The Sun and was also selected as one of the Best American Essays for either 2002 or 2003. I have come to my own appreciation of what a personal essay is, or can be, organically and intuitively, the way I come to almost all my information, so it's a challenge for me to break it down and figure out how to teach it.

I remember twenty-five years ago, when I was in college, working on a complex essay for French class, I visualized it as three poles with snakes sliding around them. The three poles were the "points" of the essay--the stuff I had to hit. The snakes were the live things. I have since forgotten the content of the essay--was it on Baudelaire and Valery? I don't know. But the moment when the form came alive for me remains an exciting one.

But how do you teach that? How do you say, "Well, it's like there are three snakes writhing around and that's the life force in your essay, but you need the poles to anchor and structure it."

I do intuitively know that there's something important about three. Three layers to a quilt, three strands in a braid. In fact, though I did mention the snakes, I focussed on the braid, because that's how I see good writing, as a weave of different elements. A straight story is too thin. There needs to be theme and variation. Digression and a return home.

And then my students told me yesterday that another teacher of theirs, Brian Teare, had taught them the Aristotilian model for essays; something like Pathos, Ethos, and Logos, which corresponded roughly to what I was talking about: you have your narrative element, your experience; and you have your theory element, your opinions about what happened. And then you have something else. the third element may vary. Could be another text, which you drop pieces into as commentary on your text. Could be a sub-plot or a counter-story. But there's something magic about the rule of three.

It made me feel good and humbled to learn the academics of it from my students even while I was teaching them my experience of it. I learned how to write essays by writing them. And I learned by being edited--heavily edited--by editors at The Sun. Other places too; I've been writing feature articles for newspapers for twenty-five years. So it becomes like making bread without a recipe; you just feel it.

I saw Grace Paley read, years ago, and someone in the audience asked her about her stories with their charming digressions and seemingly effortless shifts. "Oh, you know," she said vaguely, gesturing with her hands. "You just feel it, and you feel, it needs a little more weight here, a little less weight there."

There's no recipe. Each essay is its own unique "problem" that you the writer set up, and which you the writer have to resolve. (I say that facing two essay ideas that are poking around inside me, nosing their bellies...) Sometimes I've worked a year or longer on an essay with an ambitious, complicated structure. They are as much of an art form as any other.


G and I went to see Not a Genuine Black Man at The Marsh Friday night. Finally. It's a one-man show by Brian Copeland and it's been playing for years and I tried to get him to go see it last year--when it was only ten dollars a ticket, incidentally--and he wouldn't.

But luckily for me, G has a "harem"--our joking term for his cadre of older, mostly Jewish, intellectual and artistic women friends who will kick his conservative butt when on a regular basis. The Harem was unsuccessful at getting him to see An Inconvenient Truth ("Why should I pay ten bucks to have Al Gore depress me?"), unsuccessful at getting him to go to Brokeback Mountain, ("I'll rent the video,") but is now working on him to read The Color of Water (great book! Read it!)

And the Harem toldhim he should go see this show. So he did. Now that Brian Copeland has gone to NY with it and has a movie deal and everything, it costs $25.00 a ticket. And it was worth every penny.

For almost two hours he has you teetering between laughter and tears, recounting memories so bitter you want to choke, and the next minute turning jokes on himself, on black people, on white people, on the whole crazy system. He's witty and sweet and sharp and delivers an amazing show night after night--for four hundred shows so far, I think. I don't know how performers like Carla and Brian Copeland do it, all alone on the stage, giving and giving their enormous energy. True performers are a different breed. I'm not one of them. I like performing, I'm comfortable on stage, but I don't have the drive to do it encoded in my blood cells like they do.

Last night I performed with Wing It!--a very sweet little down-home ensemble evening of us just having fun with each other--and tonight I'm giving a poetry reading in the city. Then G and I will watch the Sopranos on DVD and eat popcorn--it doesn't get much better than that.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Laid a couple of poems. Sent them to close friends and family. I seem to be writing a female English version poetic midrash on the Bible. Who knew?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bwak! Bwak! I'm like a broody hen.

Bwak! Bwak! About to lay some more poems. Can't quite get to it. The weather turned today--it's gray and rainy. I taught kids in the morning, came home, took a bottom of the ocean power nap, and since then I've been drifting around the house with the new poems bulging against my openings, wanting to come out.

I just need to find a nice soft nest.

It's not a painful feeling, just a little itchy and uncomfortable. I cook soup, hang up some clothes in my room, pay bills, chat with friends. And all the while, the ideas, which I've put on hold for a couple of days, are jostling me from the inside.

Bwak! Bwak!

Gotta pay the utility bills, and then I swear I'll do it.