Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Left brain, right brain. I have been thinking about Jill Bolte Taylor's work on this topic. Taylor was--is--a neuroscientist who experienced a stroke as a result of a brain hemorrhage. She almost died and it took her eight years to fully recover. Meanwhile, she says that what she experienced when her left brain was disabled from the stroke was Nirvana, a state where there was no separate self, just unending oceans of bliss.

I'd like some of that.

Meditators have been talking about this forever. Dancing and music can get you there. Even tennis. Intense love experiences. The opening of the heart all the way wide without the yammering intrusion of the critical brain.

I personally spend a lot of time in the critical brain, trying to shape sentences, order manuscripts, edit my students' pieces, look for places to sell my work, apply for grants, get my list of publications in order.

I think the reason C is basically a contented man when left to his own devices is that playing music gives him time and space in that magical other part of himself.

As Carla's ALS progresses I know that the only way to get through will be to dwell more and more in that right brain, the place where everything, even death is all right, because it's just energy moving into and through the body, into the vast beyond.

Taylor, who "died" in the ambulance as it was taking her to the hospital, and then came painfully back into her body, says she has learned how to "step into" that bliss state as a result of her stroke. She says she has conscious choice, and that one very simple technique she uses is to think of someone or something she loves deeply. This is so like the advice my mother gave me years ago when I was a child and couldn't sleep: "Think of pleasant things."

I've always been someone who thinks too much. There should be a 12-step meeting for folks like me who are addicted to our own obsessive-compulsive intellects. It can be good for the writing because in going over and over a topic, turning it around in my mind restlessly like a dog with a bone, I learn more about it. By the time i come to write, I've gone several layers deeper than the surface. It's tiring though. And not particularly ecstatic.

I want to practice stepping into that other side of my brain, both for my own sake and so that I can be a source of peace for others rather than a source of critical inquiry (and irritation.)

I am blogging about this now because that old Christian-Jewish Wing It! issue came up for me this week. Several of our members are being ordained as various flavors of Protestant ministers. I'm happy for them that they have managed to complete challenging graduate programs, and I wish them well. But I also notice in the din of an election year, with the newspapers full of Obama's pastor said this, and here's a photo of the Clintons coming out of their church, or McCain and family coming out of their church--that it would be virtually impossible to get elected President at this time in America if you weren't Christian.

Not just your average perfunctory non-churchgoing person of Christian descent either, but the full monte--someone who enthusiastically and whole-heartedly (and constantly) professes their faith. If you don't do that, might as well not run.

I'm not even talking about a Jewish American President, mind you. That would raise its own interesting can of worms. But just say, someone regular who was a non-believer, who said, "I don't know about this God business, and yeah, Jesus was a good guy, but I basically believe in kindness and respect and p.s. I have a plan to solve global warming and get us out of Iraq."

Which seems to me to be what we need. A secular humanist. A smart, science-oriented secular humanist.

And why, with all this media focus on the historicity of this election--first viable black candidate, first viable woman candidate--don't we take a minute to point out that--hey!--everyone's a professed, God-fearing Christian? In other words, our diversity work is not done. We may be inching toward more gender and race equality (though we've got a long way to go in both realms) but who is talking about the erosion of the separation of church and state in recent elections?

I wish we had a law that said you couldn't know a candidate's religious affiliation, if any. I wish religion were something private and sacred (root word: secret) instead of a show everyone feels they have to participate in. I wrote a little editorial to this effect and sent it in to Tikkun. They may or may not take it; they don't pay their writers anything, so it won't make any difference to my finances. But it's a good editorial idea I think, and one which I've been mulling over (read: obsessing) for several days.

The truth is, my critical mind is a little bit in love with itself. It's so witty. So intelligent. So capable of vivid images and wicked sarcasm. But it's not entirely honest; it prefers a good show of verbal pyrotechnics to the deeper more heartfelt truths underneath.

When I was at Melinda's church in '07 it was not a Wonder Bread experience. Eighty percent black attendees with an African American lesbian pastor, it was something of a cross between a revival meeting and a recovery 12-step group, with people openly wrestling with their addictions, their demons. I felt a variety of conflicting emotions. Confusion (why is everyone going off, screaming and shouting and getting happy every time the pastor says "Jesus"--which she does three or four times per sentence? I don't feel anything.) Envy ("It looks like they're orgasming while I'm just sitting here feeling stiff and awkward and trying to pretend I don't think it's crazy.) Anger: ("All those things they are attributing to Jesus are a normal part of the Jewish religion--he didn't make any of it up--they're co-opting us--and not even accurately!") And some other things I can't even name.

Obsessing and analyzing all this doesn't make me happy. Yet somehow my brain feels it needs to do it.

Someone once said that being right is the booby prize. I'm fairly sure I'm right on this one. I mean it's a well-reasoned point that's been brewing and stewing in my brain for a while now. But it's also been keeping me up at night and increasing my sense of separation from dear churchgoing friends. I don't want to feel separate. I don't want to give up my wonderful critical thinking abilities either. Is there a way to do both? Bolte Taylor suggests we can step from one side of our brain to the other, at will. At least she can, and by implication anyone can learn to. Can I?

Friday, May 23, 2008

I've just finished up a two-day process of going through all my back issues of The Sun--16 years' worth--and cataloging the poems and stories I've published there. The score so far: 52 poems, and 15 prose pieces--and that tally might be a little low, there were a few issues missing from my collection.

My. God. It was both amazing and appalling to sit at the dining room table with towering stacks of magazines all around me. I rediscovered some little poems that I didn't even remember writing. After two laptop thefts, I never recreated my database of poems entirely. I'm glad those were published so that there's a record of them somewhere.

The appalled part came from the reckoning of how much of my life has been spent in this pursuit: writing poems, revising poems, sending out poems. I can remember addressing so many envelopes, putting so many stamps on, so many trips to the mailbox.

I've done this rather than any of the million zillion things humans do to pass their time one earth. I did not plant a forest-worth of trees, like the custodian I read about in People Magazine, who slowly, patiently planted seedling after seedling, week after week, until after thirty years, he had restored a whole barren clear-cut mountain side, miles and miles of it, to its former forest glory.

I did not adopt a dozen children from the four corners of the earth, I didn't go to graduate school and enter a helping profession like social worker or therapist, as my college advisor urged me to do. I didn't even become a full-time teacher, although I spent a lot of time telling myself I should.

I didn't have my own children. I didn't wander the world with a backpack, I didn't become an actor, painter, bread baker. For better or for worse, I've been sitting at a typewriter (and in the last twenty five years a computer,) typing, year in, year out, and this three or four page list of publications, which I'm compiling for grant applications, a book submission, letters to prospective agents, is what I have to show for it. Scary to see it reduced to that--sobering, and medicinbal too, in its own bracing way. So. This is what you've got. Is it what you wanted? What else now?

Writing being what it is, it seems I have dropped a trail of personal breadcrumbs over the house of memory that is my past--reading those back issues of The Sun, I can trace the period when I was working with people with AIDS, when I got divorced, this love affair, that love affair, teaching, counseling, food, neighborhoods...up to the present day, where my hair is grayer than I ever imagined it would be, and the pictures G took of me for my new web site (yes! After four years on now-obsolete software, we are doing a complete update!) look... old.

"See, those ones came out kind of bad, but these ones are great," he said, showing me. From his perspective as photographer, the photos that were bad were the ones that were slightly out of focus. Privately, I thought that could be an improvement. The ones he thought were "great" were high-resolution, sharp as meedles. They showed every wrinkle with merciless clarity. I resisted the impulse to ask him if he couldn't photo-shop my neck. And my forehead, while he's at it. And my upper arms.

After all, this is reckoning time, this forty-ninth year. This is the time for the counting of the first harvest. If my life were a Jewish calendar, this would be my time of Shevuous, or perhaps, Sukkot. End of summer with its illusion of endless days. Time for the facing of the face in the mirror.

It's like my first Weight Watcher's meeting when I actually stepped on the scale. Thanks to the wonders of spandex and other stretch materials, it's possible to be blithely in denial (due to a typo, I wrote "lithely," which works as well,) as long as you don't look at the numbers. But I'm e3ven more curious than I am vain--which is saying something, since I am very vain. In the end, this curiosity may be the quality that saves me. I want to know what I really look like now, I want to see how I've spent--or misspent my time, I want to ask the hard questions and endure the answers. And then I want G to photo-shop my neck.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

We went to see Young@Heart Sunday and laughed and cried our way through it. What an incredible testament to spirit that movie is! The 92-year-old woman who started doing a strip-tease with the chorus when she was 70, the old men and their sweetness--reminds me of a poem by I think it is Jack Grapes, about old women--something about beehives which are so packed with honey. Rich storehouses. I feel that way about my father. He has ripened into a sweetness that brings tears to my eyes whenever I think of it.

I sent off the tennis essay and immediately turned to working on an essay about the women's self-defense class--too immediately. I was hyper--caught up in big ideas about making lots of money doing these personbal essays. I worked and worked on it, but it's not there. I need to let it rest and marinate--need to let myself rest and marinate. I'm blessed and cursed with an overabuncance of imagination, which means I constantly dream up scemes and plans and projects. It's hard to take a mental break from all that.

Lauren just called an offered a date with her two-year-old daughter to the zoo!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My friend E went to an eco-conference recently that attracted forward-thinkers from all over the world. At lunch she sat at a table with a woman from india who told her that in the place she lives it is always hot, but lately it has been SO hot, so much hotter than hot--125 degrees Fahrenheit--that birds were dropping dead out of the branches.

It wasn't that hot here, but almost 100 I think. I taught out in Lafayette, feeling tired and yet light. At the end of the day one of the regular teachers said to me, "Some of us were talking about you, and how this year--you're different. So relaxed with the kids, and they have been really enjoying you. I don't know if you could tell, but your lessons have been wonderful."

"Thank you, thank you for telling me," I said. I was overwhelmed. No, I couldn't tell. I thought I was just tired and burned out, as usual. And fat, to boot. But the big changes I have gone through this year--and the happiness of having a real home life to come home to--must be showing up. "Thank you for telling me," I said again, and passed out of there, gratefully.

And then E woke me from a nap this afternoon, crying with joy on the phone because of the historic decision: the California Supreme Court has upheld the rights of same sex couples to marry. Of course there will be challenges. of course this is not the last of the fight. But the tide is turning, as surely and inexporably as it did when the rights of white and black people to intermarry were contested. Soon, this struggle will seem as quaint and obvious as that one does to us now.

A happy day. The Castro will be a huge party tonight, heat or no heat. As for us, we're going to sip a celebratory glass of wine and watch "Back to the Future."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

C was furiously cleaning the house and I was feeling guilty, lazy, exhausted and annoyed.

"When I even hear about a man cleaning house," Carla said to me once. "I get turned on." (She actually used a more graphic phrase, but we'll leave it at 'turned on.')

I'm sure most women feel the way she does. It would be great if I did too. But when he takes out the mop and the Murphy's oil soap, the anit-bacterial hand soap, and the Green eco-whatever liquid soap we have, I want to run away to the nearest debauched place and drink beer (and I don't even like beer,) and waste my money on strippers and poker. In short, I feel morally inferior.

"Can't you just stop?" I whined. He was a whirling dervish of activity. The answer was no. Once he gets going, he can't stop, he won't stop, he doesn't want to stop. I feel that way myself, when I'm on a roll. I just don't usually get on a roll with cleaning.

I realize I've been feeling irritated at everyone that way lately. "Can't you just stop?" I want to plead. For some reason, I need everyone to stop. I need us all to stop rushing around. Obviously, it's really me whom I want to stop. Even when I'm not visibly occupied in a productive task my mind is whirring. I play Sudoku, I read celebrity gossip online. I make lists, I plan, I read, I scribble, I call people, I email. I'm working on two new essays and a play simultaneously. I flip from one project to the next.

What my soul is screaming for me to do is stop and feel. Let myself feel all that's been going on and not do anything about it, just be. Just look at the garden, just sit on the couch. No one is stopping me. C would actually prefer it if I left the house while he cleans and went to a bookstore or took myself to a movie. (Sorry, people, he's taken.)

What's all the activity about anyway? I'm trying to avoid feeling like a Bad person. Bad people are lazy and unproductive. I'm not bad because look at me, I'm working, I'm working. I've been teaching at three different schools for the past few weeks, and while I used to do even more classes than this, I must have gotten old or something because I'm whupped. (I know it's boring to hear a spoled woman with no kids and a man who cleans complain about fatigue, but hey, I have an auto-immune thyroid condition guys. I get some kind of bit of slack for that.)

I was so tired today, teaching at the high school that I looked at the clock and couldn't tell what time it was. The position of the hands on the clock face made no sense to me. "That clock is wrong, right?" I asked the regular teacher. He glanced up. "No, it's right." It could have been the middle of the night for all my weary brain could figure out.

Why do I think I have to prove my worth by being productive? Dumb question: because I'm American, that's why. Because eeveryone feels this way.) I long to just sit and fall deeply into the center of myself, into the center of everything, and to feel all right just sitting there.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bless me, Readers, for I have lapsed. It has been five days since my last blog post, and so much has been going on. I am just plain tired, that's all, face-plant on the bed, stay in my pajamas all day tired. I keep telling myself that normal people work harder than i do, all the time, year-round, and it doesn't help. Telling myself that, i mean. Because I just have this frayed, frazzled, sensitive low-thyroid poet's body, and I am pooped. The good news is that there's just one more week of it, and then I can recoup. Hopefully.

Yoshi's was packed Tuesday night, for the Carlabration, the benefit for Carla. Everyone very glammed up, little black dresses, high heels, make-up. Wine glasses clinked, people talked, the mood was festive and expectant. First up was a comedian, David Allen Moss who joked, "It's impossible to compete with a dying woman--especially a dying white woman." Then--perhaps not in this order exactly; it's Friday now, and my brain is sawdust--came Kaila Flexer and her musical partner Gari with their duo Teslim. (For more on this or to order their haunting cd, go to Kaila's website:

They played some Eastern music on violin and aud. Kaila's composition for Carla, called Stone's Throw was especially poetic and moving. It had a gentle undercurrent of sadness, as well as light bouncing off the current. I want to hear it again--I want to write poetry while listening to it, and I will.

Then Roy Zimmerman, a wonderful political satirical singer-songwriter, who did a couple of great songs about our current state of social ridiculousness--as he said Bush makes it so easy for satirists, he practically does their work for them. Then Mike Zilber, Carla's ex, presented his settings of some Billy Collins songs. Andy Kirschner, a beautiful baritone, sang them. Those knocked me out. They were beautifully crafted, and the music fit the words perfectly. Kirschner not only had a lovely voice, but he sang as if he understood each word, inside and out. No, better than that, he sang as if he had written the words, was writing them, right then, in front of us. He got so into it that at the end of the song/poem "On Turning Ten," he cried.

Then Carla came on, and did some knock-out duets with Kirschner, with Mike's big band, Carma, backing them up. It was magical. She wore a sleeveless little black
dress and was a total siren, flirtatious and funny, and although she has complained about feeling that she's lost some control of her vocal instrument, I couldn't hear that at all. The notes were true, shaded, lively, lovely, and expressive--she can still flip a song like a hot pancake on a griddle and sing the sizzle out of it. I mean, she swung.

There were lots of ALS jokes, and Mac performed rap as well--it was his birthday, and he was presented with a cake in front of a couple hundred people, not too shabby for a sweet sixteen. It was an emotional evening, as these have all been lately. Every time Carla sings Wonderful World, she melts my New England-bred, Prozac-enhanced stoicism. G was there, wearing a dark suit and a cute black fedora with a red feather in it, and C came with me, and we all sat together, drinking it in.

Wednesday I walked around the lake with my friend Laurie, not once, but twice, (that's seven miles, folks!) talking about the perennial artist's question, "How do I make something approximating a real grown-up living doing this stuff?" It's tantalizing--there's always that carrot on the stick in front of you--this project could pan out, or that one. And the Plan B's and the Plan C's. Like me, Laurie is her own combination of down-to-earth practical and big dreamer--she's figured out a few things that I haven't, and when we put our two heads together we get more wisdom and excitement for this and other topics.

Back home at the ranch, C and I have had some interesting conversations about weight loss, as I recently joined Weight Watchers and then stopped going after two meetings. I'm carrying about twelve or fifteen extra pounds on a five foot nine inch frame--it's not that big a deal, and yet it seems to take a lot of focus to lose it. One thing I have realized from communicating with him about this is that I need to say good-bye to my fat.

Good-bye cuddly protective covering, extra three inches on my tummy, extra oomph on my hips and breasts. I know your intention is to help me survive tough Russian winters and bear healthy children even when food supplies are low. Unfortunately I haven't used you for that latter task, but I do appreciate your durability and life force. Thank you for cushioning my falls, and keeping me warm. It's spring now, and I don't need you, so thanks and good-bye.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ten women of a certain age--let's say long past high school--in prom dresses, in a black stretch limo, drinking champagne, laughing at the twinkley stars on the ceiling, and the 70's music on the CD player, and at each other. Ten beautiful women, and Carla the most beautiful of all, in her purple dress and flaming hair with not one strand of gray in it, laughing in the back of the limo.

The driver's name was Sam. He was young and handsome and came from Jordan and had no way of knowing the situation. Ten middle-aged women--except for Gina, who, as Molly said, looked younger than springtime and is actually 27, "but I just went through 54 hours of labor which definitely makes me a mature woman, so put that in your juice box and suck on it!" Nursing her new baby daughter Georgia, her husband and Georgia's daddy following patiently behind in their car.

Ten crazy women, goofy with love and grief, getting off at Cafe Gratitude and ordering, "I am Luscious," I am Terrific," "I Am Sensual." Pesto pizza made with sprouts, pad thai with the noodles cut from zucchini shavings, a smoothie with raw cacao and agave nectar. More raucous laughter as we paraded through the restaurant in our finery and heads turned. There were two or three tiaras. There were high heels worn by women who are normally found in sneakers. My borrowed emerald green prom dress with the halter top showed beaucoup decolletage and I looked, well, hot.

We asked Sam to drive us to Treasure Island. The East Bay glittered like a mess of diamonds on one side, San Francisco on the other. We were in-between, suspended between sky and water, landmass and land. It seemed appropriate. More seventies music, and some eighties. Carla wanted to cast something into the ocean. Sam pulled over and we spilled out of the limo. A charter vus full of German tourists was right next to us. They were taking pictures of the beautiful view. We were dancing and laughing and carrying on. Soon they were taking pictures of us.

Carla somehow managed to wriggle through a hole in the fence. Four panicked women piled after her, screaming, "Are you out of your mind?" She wanted to get closer to the waves, so that her offering would not fall on barren rocky ground, but would be borne away by the ocean.

She made it! Four or five women pulled her back under the hole in the railing. Carla was grinning. We took silly pictures. Ten women dancing wildly. A bus full of tourists from Florida pulled up. We are now going to be immortalized in home movies on two continents. "This is what the crazy people of the San Francisco Bay Area look like." Molly and Wendy and a few others ran through the sprinklers on the other side of the road, waving their arms. It was chilly and foggy out but we were warm from dancing and from remembering our crazy times of youth. We put our feet in a circle and photographed our fancy shoes. Piled back in the limo.

More champagne, and saki. Dark chocolate. I spilled champagne on my borrowed emerald green dress. Laughing and talking and singing along with Styx, Boston, The Steve Miller Band. Gina's recent childbirth reminded the other mothers of their own stories. Initiation. Difficult labors, mystical labors, unexpected turns of events. This baby was colicky, that one was quiet and easy and slept through the night right away. How long ago it was. How fast the time went.

Tired feet eased out of high heels. Carla leaned back against Gina's motherly soft shoulder. Sam drove us back to Carla's apartment, where her father greeted us with homemade little photo albums his wife had put together: carla as a child, Carla as a teenager, as a college graduate, as a radiant young mother with baby Mac. We leaned against each other on the couches, on the floor, reluctant to go home. but it was a school night, a work night. We hugged each other and left, exhausted, jubilant, a little teary.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

While I was in San Francisco last night, teaching a class in personal essay for Writing Salon, C was cruising around the streets of West Oakland, looking for the father of a kid he's grown close to in Juvenile Hall, a kid who is about to be shipped off to a group home in LA tomorrow.

He had tried calling--repeatedly. The father is a wiry man who talks as if he's just downed twelve lattes, C said, and doesn't answer his phone. C finally got through via the sister. The boy wanted to see his father and say good-bye. For his whole time in the Hall, this kid had been pining for a visit from his dad, who doesn't have a working car, who is a single father of four or five other children and is overwhelmed, who has a job scraping metal against metal, and has constructed a six-point plan to save the world, which he's had privately published via Kinko's.

C listened to all this as he drove the man to the Hall, then waited outside while the father got to go in and say good-bye to his son. C was not allowed in because he's not a direct relative. He doesn't get paid to do this. In fact, he's been reprimanded for caring too much, not spending enough time on his paperwork. But this is the real work, this is where the rubber meets the road. No matter how neglectful or abusive, kids mostly yearn for their parents.

And he's a young-looking small kid. What's going to happen to him down in LA? This kid who's not a fighter, not a criminal mastermind, just an ordinary kid with some bad associations, no mother, low reading skills, and no place to be? C said last night, "Anything could happen. He could pull it together, get his skills up, do well. He could run away. He could end up getting killed or in adult prison. There's no way to know."

These kid's lives are like leaves getting blown along the street. There's no anchor, no ballast. It makes our argument over whether to rent out the in-law right away after our current tenant leaves, or wait a month and repaint and replace the sink seem very petty and unimportant. But after we argued and made up, I went out to my car to drive to class and found a perfect pink rose, stripped of thorns, on the dashboard.