Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Woke up this morning with one of those once a month headaches, piercing, as if someone were driving nails through my left temple. The day has been temperamental, alternating between warm sunshine and cold overcast. One of those Bay Area days that could be any season, except for the low slant of the light.

Last night G won free tickets to Yoshi's so we went. It was a singer named Sony Holland, a pretty blonde in a red dress who did a brisk hour of jazz standards, with some original tunes thrown in. I know I am biased, also spoiled because of all the great artists I know, but she couldn't hold a candle to my friend Carla Zilber, who does a portrait of a burnt-out wedding singer so poignantly and explosively in her one-woman show Wedding Singer Blues.

Sony was good, she has a lovely voice, nice timing, good dynamics, but she just wasn't giving that extra je ne sais quoi from the belly that distinguishes a good performance from a great one. It was 10:00 on a Monday night. Maybe she was tired, maybe her feet hurt in those sparkly high heeled sandals. She did come really alive on a beautiful cover of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which has to be one of the most gorgeous songs in the world.

Being a great performer demands a kind of energy that most people (myself included) don't have. It goes beyond being talented or entertaining. Holland has a nice voice and good control. She obviously loves the music. But being able to rip someone's heart out and hand it back to them dripping and raw--and being able to do that night after night, year in, year out-- is an art, it's a sacrifice, a perverse, sacred calling. You have to be crazy enough to lay down your own life, the most intimate aching parts of it, for whomever is there to listen. And really, why would anyone want to do that?

So many talented folks I know are working their butts off to get to the privileged difficult position of being a working artist. But talent is only the tip of the iceberg. Once you're there, you have to keep risking everything. For the rest of your life. Is it any wonder someone would prefer to just put on a sexy dress and sing some nice songs in a pleasing way? Who could blame her?

(Just because I'm analyzing why Sony's performance didn't rock my world doesn't mean it was a bad time. The sax player was phenomenal, the piano player was very good, and we liked just people-watching.

On the subject of people-watching: true, politically-incorrect confession-- there was a large older woman in the audience with white hair and glasses. From the neck up she looked like a 60-year-old reference librarian. She was wearing the most low-cut, thrusted-bosom-baring top I have ever seen outside of a plus-sized Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue. And her "nursers" as my nephew would call them, were monumentally huge, size MMM or something.

I was fascinated, no doubt because of my own issues with bustiness and aging. I wondered who she was: a sex surrogate for older men? A retired Vegas showgirl? A woman who was publically reclaiming her sexuality? On a dare? Just another big-breasted woman who got tired of the way the fabric pulls and gaps and you just look lumpy and fat in a turtleneck? I felt repelled and fascinated: was she trying to prove something?

I even found myself thinking, why doesn't she get them reduced? which is a terrible thing to think, or say, but God help me, I thought it and now I'm saying it, which just goes to show there's some road left to travel on my own body-acceptance issues. G. gasped when he saw her, and the guy sitting behind us gave a little involuntary yelp when she turned around; why were we so...reactive? Is it that the image of an older woman's public sexuality is disturbing, or was the outfit just aesthetically unpleasing?)

The house feels a little crazy now, with David and Julie just moving in, boxes everywhere, everyone in transition. I'm working, through the headache, trying to see everything as a gift, and the gifts are abundant. A dear friend sent me a bunch of organic food. The yoga studio where I performed at Enver's benefit last Friday offered a free month of yoga classes. I'm gratefully accepting all this bounty and trying to stay simple; clean my room, call Internet providers, put away the piles of books and magazines.

I met today with a friend who spent twenty-five years in prison and lives in a trailer and makes beautiful gourds with goddess images on them (and wasn't the older woman at the show last night some kind of seldom-seen goddess of our time--maybe the shadow side of Aphrodite in her outh?) Tonight I'll see my old friend Oscar who escaped the army in El Salvador when he was 13, had a harrowing Odyssey to get to this country, and is now a grown man adopting his Salvadorean nephew. David keeps interrupting me as I try to write because he needs my help moving his furniture in. And the beat goes on.

Meanwhile: keep praying, drink water, pull a few weeds, track the moon's cycle. It's almost the birthday of the trees.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Last night I performed with Enver and friends at a benefit in a yoga studio. Fantastic lineup of performers! The Dancemonks, Mirah Moriarty and Rodrigo Esteva, moved me especially with their balls-out, vulnerable, athletic performance. Philip Gelb improvised haunting melodies on shakuhachi flute. I improvised a poem about, what else, flying, while Unity Nguyen played the African kora--a 12-stringed harp--to accompany me. Enver did a beautiful story/dance about the desert, Dana deLong also played flute, and Benjamin Jarrett danced, and a man who wasn't on the program played a pinecone, which was surprisingly melodic.

This morning, gray fog, slight rain, mild depression. It's been a tough month. A lot of good things are coming out of it: an overhaul of the house, (thank you, David and Julie for your courage in moving in,) new computer thanks to the extreme generosity of Robbie Strand, new possibilities for playing with power, balance and strength in relationships, thanks to AcroPlay and Scott Longwell's work.

Oh, and the other day a letter informing me that the ms. for See How We Almost Fly had come in as one of the top ten finalists in the Pearl book competition, but the winner is someone else.

I handled January's challenges pretty well, I think; got the house secured, did what needed to be done. I'm especially proud of how I rolled with a disappointment in a romantic relationship without collapsing or exploding. That was actually the hardest thing, and I'm going to call it major progress.

For today, a little work, a lot of self-care: morning pages, gratitude list, student critiques, clean room, swim hard, go over G's house and listen to Carol King sing I Feel The Earth Move--corny but potent--have a good dinner, watch The Sopranos. Now there are people with real problems.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Last night I went to an "Acro-Play" class at Inner Heat Yoga. It was taught by Scott Longwell, who has an institute called Whole Body Wisdom which sponsors may intriguing workshops about Releasing Feminine Fire and Something Masculine Something (you can see which one I paid attention to.)

When I first got there I was intimidated by some of the young, sleek, fit people that showed up, friendly and sweet as they were. Then some more people in my age bracket showed up, but I immediately assumed that they had been doing yoga for 1,000 years and were bionic. It seemed like a risk to put my middle-aged body out there, lifting and being lifted, but I did, and had a blast.

We did a lot of "flying,"--that old-fashined game, where one person lies on the floor and lifts another person by putting their feet on their hips. Whee! No hands! Then variations of that--the teachers could literally toss each other in the air, and land, like trapeze artists, or monkeys (one guy I swear, was part monkey.)

The last exercise of the night was to pair with two other people and ask for exactly what you wanted--in fact, we were encouraged to ask for something we thought the other people would say no to. I found myself in a group with two big guys, so I asked to be thrown around in the air and use the other person's body as a climbing structure. I've watched petite little women do that at Contact Improv jams and it always loked like so much fun, but I've always held back, because I felt too big and was afraid I'd hurt someone or myself.

One of the guys in my group had a bad back, but the other one wanted to do it. He encouraged me to leap up on him, legs around his waist, and then he flipped me over his shoulder, spun me around, and I had a fantastic time just climbing all over him. I squealed like a child and felt ecstatic.

Driving home, I felt warm, full, complete. My body glowed. I'm so grateful that I can still do this! After awhile, I became aware of some habitual thoughts starting, "Why hasn't so and so called me?" "What does it mean?" Brooding and obsessing over personal relationships, my favorite hobby.

I was able to make a conscious choice to turn my attention away from that and back towards the joy I had just had. It was an effort--my mind is more accustomed to going along the negative groove; it's a well-worn neural pathway. But I was physically tired and fulfilled enough to slow down and recognize my choice-point. A minor miracle.

I'm definitely going back.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I'm glad David's moving back in. He and I know each other very well, laugh at each other constantly, and can read each other's faces and bodies like a book. It's a great comfort and sometimes a pain in the ass. But more often than not, a comfort. Now I have to clean up my act because he's alert to my tricks and faults and loves me anyway. Shit!

Meanwhile, everyone empathizes at how violated I must feel. At the risk of sounding like a fake-o Pollyanna, what I'm impressed with is how much love and support I'm getting. Tim generously volunteered a laptop--my most pressing need. G. and Ellen helped me set it up and get plugged in again. A friend offered information on backing up files, and another music box--which is so generous I don't think I can accept it. Wing It! people gave hugs and sympathy.

Angela even offered to help me tweak and safely store my resume. (Theresa, I finally found your blog--it's fantastic! and saw the one where your resume is posted and thought, "That's a great idea!") And on and on. The worst part of being a "victim" of anything is the isolation a person could feel, and I don't feel isolated. I feel like throwing a big party for everyone who has helped me through this and I will.

Great teaching moment: talking about mysticism in the third grade (a propos a poem of Lalla, a 12th century (I think?) mystic from India,) and having a student clutch his head dramatically and say, "You're blowing my mind!"

There is a Lake

There is a lake so tiny
that a mustard seed would cover it
easily, yet everyone drinks from this lake.

Deer, jackals, rhinoceroses, and sea elephants
keep falling into it, falling and dissolving
almost before they have time to be born.

--Lalla (translated by Coleman Barks)

That's what it's all about...

Sunday, January 21, 2007


This time it was more violent than the first time a year and a half ago. The front lock was forced with a screwdriver. My housemate/tenant who lives in the in-law's door kicked in. Her stuff all gone through and tossed around. Money missing, gold jewelry missing. She screamed when she saw it, she went ballistic. That was the worst thing.

In this neighborhood sixteen other serious crimes were committed on the same day--Martin Luther King Day--carjackings, house break-ins, armed robberies. It took the police six hours to get here. Six hours!!! When the one lone overworked exhausted cop finally got here close to midnight (I had called it in at 5:30 p.m., and made two follow-up calls,)he did not even dust for fingerprints. Why bother? Oakland has only one fingerprint tech, and basically if no one was murdered or raped (thank God, thank God,) then nothing will be done. There just isn't enough manpower. The criminals know this. Everyone knows it.

My room was rifled through--drawers, closet, underwear, vitamin pills, books, clothes, scattered and tossed on the floor in a big heap. They left my ex-husband's gold wedding ring which never fit him properly. They left a DVD player, and my passport and checkbooks and credit cards (why did they leave those things??) and they took my stereo and iPod. And of course, again, the laptop gone.

My laptop! My laptop! Please take money and jewelry and clothes, just leave the fucking laptop! You'll only get about fifty bucks for it on the street. It's a year and a half old which is like 50 in human years, and doesn't have any fancy bells and whistles. It just holds all my poems and plays and lesson plans and correspondance and first drafts and third drafts and the latest latest of everything I wrote.

And no, I didn't have back up.

Well, correction: I have backed up my most major stuff by sending it to myself, to my email address on yahoo, because yahoo keeps things forever. And I send things out to a dozen close people regularly, who can send stuff back to me. But not the most recent updates of revisions to my poetry manuscript--those I'll have to enter by hand. And not the educational things, the downloads of pictures, the little bits and pieces of information that are so crucial.

I am typing this on a laptop that my friend Tim's ex-wife passed along to him when she got a new computer. It's okay, it's fine, it works and I am very grateful. My friend Ellen went down to Radio Shack with me today and helped get the special cords and cables and whatnot needed to make this one talk to my printer and function. I can read my email again and respond to it. I can keep up with my work.

God, ten years ago I barely knew how to do email and now I can't live without it. Give me another year or two and I'll learn how to retrieve messages from my cell phone. I don't belong in this century! "If it were 1907 and my typewriter were stolen, I could get another one without having to go through all this techno-shit," I complained to Ellen. On the other hand if it were 1907 I'd probably be working in a sweatshop, huddled over a sewing machine twelve hours a day.

Okay, enough about my laptop. I'd also like to say that I finally had a date with my Little Sister last week and it went very well! We really like each other!! We are going to see Freedom Writers tonight! And I found another place to volunteer with traumatized kids in Oakland, which I would like to do. I am not going to let this break-in turn my energy around. There's too much work I want to do.

Later: okay, everyone run don't walk to see Freedom Writers. My Little Sister suggested it. I found myself in tears throughout the movie, and I'm not a crier. Yes, there are hokey parts, yes it's that same old white teacher saves the world for kids of color scenario, but it's real and the kids are so powerful. It made me proud to be a teacher. And it restored my faith that the solution is not just more police--though it wouldn't hurt Oakland to get more of a force together--but relevant education, love, and community.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Went to see Elizabeth and Theron perform The Beautiful Two-Year-Old Boy at CounterPulse in the city last night. I know I am biased, but they were among the top two strongest pieces of the evening. (The other one was a dance duet that was very powerful.) It was great to see the beginnings of See How We Almost Fly get out there in the world and be well-received. Strong vocal presence as well as amazing dance, and beautiful work with a long piece of red fabric. Transformational.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Brrr...! It's 30 degrees here as I type this, wearing long underwear, two T-shirts, two sweaters, a coat and a hat. Note: I am IN my bedroom. Yes, the space heater is on, but feeble as it is, the fuse keeps blowing because Masankho also has his space heater on, and Leyra is trying to dry her clothes. So finally I get to be the artist in the garrett, although happily I can report that I am not starving at all, in fact I've got all the food I want downstairs and no need to put anything in the refrigerator since the house is so cold.

There is also an epidemic of head lice at the school where I am a poet in residence, so I have had my brown wool hat on all day, and haven't stooped next to any third grade desks...I'll be wearing the hat to bed tonight also, along with most of the rest of the clothes I've got on. This is some freak Arctic wind coming down on us from I don't know where. The Arctic, I guess. It's amazing to think of the power of the wind, invisible but so potent. Of all things in Nature, the wind seems to me to be closest to God.

My friend Ruth is packing up to move to Western Massachusetts (where they have had no snow and it's a balmy 50 degrees out.) She and her girlfriend will drive across country to get there, taking the Southern route. My cross-country trips with Alan (we did it four times) are among the best memories of my life. It's probably not socially responsible, given global warming (where IS global warming tonight, when we need it? Just kidding!) but it is wonderful to drive through small towns and Southern cities, listening to people and talking with them, eating bread and drinking coffee at little local bakeries, seeing the sights (I still remember the six-legged steer in Kansas, it was the only thing advertized along the highway for miles, and I mean miles...)

I went over to her house yesterday to say good-bye and go for one last soak in her hot tub overlooking the bay. I've spent so many happy evenings in that tub with Ruth, talking about everything from love to poetry to dating, to families, spirituality, sex and houses...healing waters. Healing presence. I'm also inheriting a beautiful couch and some chairs from her. Having her be in Massachusetts doesn't feel like so much of an "away" move to me, since she'll be in the same (tiny) state where my whole family lives, it will be easy to see her on visits East.

Tomorrow night I go see Elizabeth and Theron perform a dance/theatre piece set to one of my poems, The Beautiful Two-Year-Old Boy at Crosspulse in San francisco. A taste of things to come--five months till the production of See How We Almost Fly, in May.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

To engage.

To engage with the world.

To fully engage, all gears interlocked and working together. To commit. Things only run well when everything is fully engaged.

Yet my life is full of distractions from...my life. How can that be?

I wear my mother's engagement ring, a flat-cut old-fashioned diamond. I would never buy a diamond myself now, or accept one, knowing where and how they come to market, but this was passed on to me. (No doubt mined from the same misery that all the other ones are. And the clothes on my back? And the food that I eat? And the gas in my car?)

I told my sister at the time, "I feel funny wearing her engagement ring when I'm not engaged."

She said, "You're engaged with life!"

Today I woke up feeling that I wasn't engaged enough in my own life. The bills have piled up again. Student work that I should have gotten to by now is awaiting my final comments, and to be put in envelopes. Other work, a half-finished essay, the kids' presents. Mess, disorganization; all a way to stay slightly disengaged, wansdering around with a coffee cupin hand, looking for a place to set it down.

I tried moving my mother's ring from my second finger, where I wear it, to my real ring finger, but it's too loose. It doesn't fit that finger.

Then, this morning, an email from a woman I don't know, who had read my poem in The Sun, and told me about being on a spiritual retreat and hearing her lama read another poem of mine. My poems are engaged in the world, even when I myself don't feel it.

This weekend, Elizabeth and Theron are going to perform a dance/theatre piece to my poem, "The Beautiful Two-Year-Old Boy." Part of being a writer is that your work goes out into the world and has relationships with people while you sit at a desk and try to find the PG&E bill, and then the checkbook.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Helen was my best friend in eighth grade. She was the liveliest, funniest, sexiest, most outrageous person I had met in my young life, and I was completely in love with her. For the next twenty years or so we laughed, sang, bickered, walked, hiked, ate, and talked together. She was charismatic, stubborn and insecure, with long ripply brown hair that flowed down her back, and a beautiful singing voice. I was introspective, funny, and poetic, tall and loping next to her quick purposeful movements.

We hitchhiked through Greece together attracting a trail of men who followed us like dogs on a scent (we were 18); we dissected processed and pureed each and every interaction either of us had together; we read Tarot cards and got astrology readings; we sang spirituals and Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell; we wrote a song or two together, with me on lyrics, her doing the music; we dated two boys who were best friends themselves; we shared babysitting gigs, books, clothes, and opinions; we cooked and ate, and at one point had a (very) short-lived catering business together.

We were children of the sixties and seventies, activists, or would-be activists. We made bean dip for United Farm Workers meetings, we marched in anti-war and anti-nuke demonstrations, and went to concerts by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Cris Williamson and Holly Near.

When I got married in 1987, my husband and I picked Helen to officiate at our wedding, while a Justice of the Peace witnessed it to make it official. Helen read Native American blessings to us; she cried through the whole ceremony, and midwifed us into our marriage. Fifteen years later, after my divorce, I flew up to Seattle to be at her wedding to Michael. He was ten years older than us, but active and spunky likeher; a singer, a dancer, bird-watcher, nature-lover.The next year they had a little boy, Jesse.

Last night I got the email that Michael is actively dying. I saw them last year and even after the chemo, he had spring in his step and looked much the same--a little older, maybe, a little thinner. We played Boggle, and talked birds and politics, and drama--I was there for a workshop of my play--and hung out with Jesse who is the same age as one of my nephews, equally adoreable, and preternaturally smart. I noticed Michael's especially tender relationship with Jesse. He and Helen could get feisty with each other, but this little boy was bathed in love.

My ex-husband died of cancer two years ago, leaving a widow and a four-year-old daughter.

When we were girls and dreaming our futures, Helen and I never factored in divorce, or cancer, hospice, in-home nurses, insurance payments, mortgages, social security benefits, pensions, or grief counselors for children. We weren't the type of girls who spent much time planning our weddings; we were too busy planning how we would solve the school desegregation problem in Boston, or go to South Africa and fix apartheid.

Our lives turned out so differently than we could have guessed. Larger and smaller at the same time. We did not liberate South Africa, or South Boston, but we were able to liberate parts of ourselves, and were touched by and touched deeply into many people's lives in the process.

Helen knew my mother--in fact she loved my mother, who could be an intimidating person. I had friends who lived in fear of my mother. My mother loved Helen too. They were both fiery and dramatic, detail-oriented, bossy, and charismatic. If my mother were alive today, she would be aching for what Helen is going through now.

My sister wrote me yesterday about a gathering of women she was at the other night, where all three of them were at one stage or another of sparation and divorce. I was at a similar gathering two nights ago with another friend out here, whose twenty-year marriage is ending.

I'm sure there are similar gatherings of women, all over the globe, to help each other through these rites-of-passage that no one talks about, these unmarriages. I'm sure even now, women are making tea and passing tissues and telling each other that it will be okay. Which, big picture, it will. The kids will survive and grow up, scarred, yes, but who isn't scarred? The woman will live, and if she's lucky, and chooses to, she'll grow from it all. But it's sad, and hard, and lonely, and not at all what we were trained to dream about when we were fifteen, lounging on a narrow bed, singing along to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" album.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Memoir and Testimony was crowded with twice as many students as expected. We had to pull out an extra table! It was fantastic--lively, deep, and intense. Teaching felt easy; I knew what to say and how and when to say it, and fell in love with everyone around the table. At the very end, we went around and I had each student read a sentence or two from their in-class writing. An amazing collage of personal stories, family histories, confessions, snatches of dialogue, description, and commentary emerged. I am so glad I get to teach this class!!!

Friday, January 05, 2007

New year, new car. New to me, anyway. A royal blue 2001 Honda Civic with 95,000 miles on it. It's in perfect shape, and clean as a whistle. I'm still a little in shock that I actually bought it yesterday--I thought G and I were just going to check and look, and, you know, browse...but there it was, and my old Geo Prism has been making ominous noises for a while now, plus the power steering's pretty much shot, plus the frame rattles like a rainstick whenever I get behind the wheel, plus I can't see out the back window and the radio and tape deck are both dead...

So, I celebrated the new year with a lttle consumerism. I had hoped my next car would be a Prius, but they are still too expensive.

Many new poems--four or five in the last week, thank you, God. My poor family and friends have been inundated with emails, but they respond enthusiastically, so I have no motivation to stop.

Last week: a little head cold which was a drag--no swimming for seven days--my muscles have turned to mush. I feel much better today so will hit the pool, hopefully. Now I'm getting ready to go do yoga with Carla.

I read a book in Border's the other day while I was procrastinating working on an essay, called "Grow Younger Every Year." I'll save you the trouble of buying it for $20.00 or spending three hours reading it: exercise hard six days a week for the rest of your life. Especially after age fifty. It sounds a little brutal, but I'm convinced that's the secret to treating depression as well.

The "trouble" with exercising that much and that hard is that it does take over your life and rewire your brain in a way that's not usually associated with great literature, i.e. endorphins make me happy and goofy, rather than deep and intense. Proust wrote all his books while lying in bed, and never got any exercise. He was intensely creative, pretty miserable, and died young. Hmmm...

Getting ready to teach Memoir and Testimony this weekend. The hardest part so far has been thinking up assignments--students want to be told to write a paper, and some parameters about what kind of paper--I'm more interested in having them just digest all these different great writers and letting them inform their own work, but I bow to the human need for deadlines and set tasks.

There's an article in this month's Vanity Fair (I had a very productive procrastination session at Borders,) about the foster family Augusten Burroughs excoriated in Running with Scissors and how they were impacted by his portrait of them--brings up ethical questions about the whole genre, specially in the wake of the James Frey scandal. I'm going to copy it and bring it in to class first day.

Wa-hoo! Yoga!!