Thursday, February 26, 2009

First pink blossoms on the peach tree outside the kitchen window. Reward for weeks of rain.

It would be inaccurate to say I was sick as a dog last weekend. Dogs don't complain. Not to be dramatic or anything, but this flu made me feel like I was being crucified. I hurt so much I couldn't even read. That was probably a good thing. I lay on the bed and listened to Mozart while C looked at me pityingly and occasionally brought glasses of water and Ny-Quil.

I developed a taste for Ny-Quil. The miny flavor's not bad.

Today I am breathing through both nostrils. My body is so glad to be moving once more, going up and down stairs, any little thing.

I am still finding more poems for Love Shack, and more reaons to procrastinate doing anything else. Coffee tastes sweet. Everything tastes sweet. I am so grateful to be healthy again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The other night I kept dreaming, "The rabbi is coming! The rabbi is coming!" In my dream I was living in Harvard Square, where I lived when I married my first husband. I had to get home in time for this appointment with the rabbi. But I couldn't find my street in Oakland, much less my house, because I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nevertheless: "The rabbi is coming, the rabbi is coming!" I kept repeating, in a state of great excitement, until I woke up.

Yesterday evening, the rabbi came to our house. I like it that he's slight and unassuming and used to be a labor lawyer. He wears a little knit cap all the time, and carries a laptop. We talked for several hours, drinking tea and nibbling on edamame, crackers and hummus, home-made cookies, store-bought cookies, dolmas, tamari almonds, dried peaches, olive tapenade, and strips of sweet red peppers (I wonder if he gets served basically the same food at all the Bay Area liberal families he visits: vegetarian, Mediterranean, "safe" in terms of kosher, dairy-free, wheat-free...)

We talked about our upcoming wedding; he gave us an overview of the structure for Jewish weddings, and told us which elements we could re-invent or re-imagine (just about all of it, as it's Renewal.) I had never had that kind of concentrated private attention from a rabbi before. He asked us in a completely non-judgmental way about our spirituality. It was clear that any answer we gave would be acceptable.

I won't write about C's answers, because they are private to him. For myself I don't feel God as anthropomorphic, except that sometimes I think God is the aggregate of all consciousness everywhere, including the consciousness of rocks and trees. I kind of imagine God as a big cloud, maybe a glittering soft cloud of connection, like the cloud of gnats that buzz around a Redwood tree on a hot hazy day, only not annoying, like gnats. (Well, maybe sometimes annoying.) I experience God in the whirlwind, in the breeze, in anything airborne, swarms of bees, dust storms. Not that those are necessarily signs of God's presence, but I imagine God's presence to feel like that, something enveloping and yet not concrete--something you can sense but not grasp.

I didn't say all this at our meeting. I said that my concept of God had changed, was changing over the years.

The rabbi said, "Years? That's very stable of you. My concept of God changes from hour to hour."

He asked us to write a vision statement for our relationship. Later we'll have more writing assignments to fulfill. I got excited about writing a vision statement. (Lists! Goals! You're singing my song!) Then I realized I don't know exactly what a vision statement is. I googled it. The web site How to Write a Compelling Vision Statement says: "A vision statement is a vivid idealized description of a desired outcome that inspires, energizes and helps you create a mental picture of your target. It could be a vision of a part of your life, or the outcome of a project or goal.

Vision statements are often confused with mission statements, but they serve complementary purposes.

The best vision statements for result areas describe outcomes that are five to ten years away, although some look even further out..."

I am so glad we are doing the wedding this way: consciously. Of course there will be all the brouhaha about a chupah, a dress, and C's clothes, and rings, and flowers, and food, and music. Logistics and aesthetics. But this is the heart of why we're even bothering to get legally married, so we can ask and consider and commit to these questions: what do we intend to do with our time here together, and with this love which we were lucky enough (and bruised enough) to cherish when we found it?

The other thing he told us which moved me so much was that since Prop 8 passed, he doesn't want to sign our marriage certificate. Since he can't perform that function for the gay couples he marries, he doesn't want to do it for the straight ones--it would be discriminatory. If Prop 8 is still in effect by summer--which I hope it won't be--we'll go down to City Hall and get a marriage certificate signed there, and then do the religious ceremony at synagogue, just like any gay couple in our congregation.

This feels right to me. I already feel badly about being able to enjoy the privilege of legal marriage which my gay friends are excluded from. I am glad our rabbi has integrity and is committed to fairness as we are.

In writing news: I was going great guns on Love Shack until the weekend of studying drug addiction issues kind of knocked the wind out of my creative sails. I am used to being fairly casual and practical about my writing and sometimes I forget how delicate the process is. I am going to see Carla today and she's going to try and download the B-52s song Love Shack for me to listen to. I hope that gets me back into it.

Meanwhile I rewrote the self-defense essay again, for the thousandth time, and am working on the rewrite of the Carla article (again, for the thousandth time.) And Tim wants to re-enter the process of recording my hot tub play as a radio play, so we'll work on that in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rain for days now, soaking, drenching, gentle and then hard, stopping and starting, heavy downpour to light drizzle, thoroughly wet through and through, mud puddles, backyard swamps, RAIN. We keep repeating, "We need it," to each other through shivering lips. Everyone says it. the cashier at the grocery store, my Little Sister's grandmother, my friends and I:

"We need it, we need it. Thank God for the rain. They've been predicting the worst drought in twenty years for California, maybe this will mitigate it."

Yes, it's great for the thirsty earth, for the dry garden, for my neighbor's corn, for the vast orchards of asparagus and lettuce, for the peach trees, for the depleted reservoirs which were showing their bones when we drove up to Ashland last summer, under the heavy pall of smoke from two hundred separate forest fires all around the state. And when I read about what's going on in Australia, I want to run outside naked in the downpour, to splash and shout, "More, more more!"

It feels like hope, it feels like a reprieve from all the doom and gloom of the economic news. It feels like Obama winning the election.

On the other hand, it's a bitch to drive in. Friends who are in wheelchairs are more housebound and hampered than usual. And my feet are cold.

Sunday was the second day of classes for the certificate in counseling drug addicts. I love the class--the teacher knows his stuff, he is expert yet humble and real. There's TONS of material, more than I can assimilate, and there's all the initial stress of finding a strange campus, parking, wandering around looking for the right building--in the rain. Sunday I stupidly left my car lights on when I rushed into class, and when I came out my battery was dead. This necessitated waiting around in the rain and growing darkness for campus police to come give me a jump. I was chilled to the bone, but when I finally got home C had made his incomparable black bean soup with chunks of pork.

And class, as I said, is good. For one thing it's just good to be learning something new. There's so much to assimilate in this field: family dynamics, legal stuff, psychology and physiology of addiction, different kinds of therapeutic interventions and protocols. It's very practical, measurable and results-oriented--you can measure success by the addict not relapsing. That works better for me than being the kind of therapist with patients who just have general malaise. (Can you imagine treating Woody Allen? I'd jump out the window. Of course, I'd land in a big pile of dough, so maybe it wouldn't be that bad.) It's also, embarrasingly, the kind of therapy client I always was. How can you tell if you're getting better or if you're just getting better at complaining? It's so subtle and elusive.

Sitting in class for seven hours a day, listening, is hard. The other students are mostly working in the field--there's a nurse, a couple of therapists who want to learn more about addiction issues, and some social workers. Some are in recovery themselves.

The main fear I had going into this was that because I don't have an alcohol or drug problem myself, I would be less qualified than someone who had real exprience of recovery in their life. I have struggled with addictions, but most of them have been behavioral--co-dependecy, addiction to procrastination, playing computer games, and sugar. The teacher, who is in recovery himself, said that the counselors who helped him the most were not former addicts themselves. The crucial ingredient is caring and believing, not one's own personal history.

I did find that in the last ten years or so my attitudes have shifted. I am more conservative than I used to be. When I was working with addicts in the nineties, I was inclined to see the face of angels in each and every derelict. I got enthralled with the drama and the romance of the stories and was a bit starry-eyed and overcome with the meaningfulness of it all. Now I feel more anger and exhaustion at the waste. I am more sympathetic to the people around the addict, and less inclined to buy into the charm of larger than life personalities.

The teacher showed us a movie called Shattered Spirits with Martin Sheen playing the alcoholic father of a classically dysfunctional family. The movie was a bit corny, but it hit the marks very accurately in terms of the unpredictability (yet predictability) of the father's rages, and the children's different responses to it.

There was the heroic child, the daughter who did everything right and took over parental responsibilites. The scapegoat was the middle son who acted out, got poor grades, and was made to bear the brunt of the father's rages. The youngest was the "lost child," introverted, solitary, living in an imaginary world. I saw aspects of myself and of friends and people I have known. But mostly I just wanted to slug the alcoholic father. I had little compassion for him. Perhpas it's my age--women with declining hormones get less empathic and more irritable--but as the credits rolled and the classroom lights went on, I saw many of my classmates were wiping away tears. I was fuming and wanted to swim 20 laps. Interesting.

The teacher was honest when I raised this point and said that inside of every addict lived Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They are all--and of course, we are all--capable of evil or greatness. It's a primal question, a primal problem, just made more stark and dramatic by the choice the addict faces about whether to put booze or drugs into his body. If I drink a glass of wine, my morality and ethics do not hang in the balance. I don't risk turning into another person, someone so ugly I would rather die than be her. But the addict does face that.

On the other hand, I have faced ugliness within myself, and sometimes watched, horrified, as a part of my mind and psyche that is capable of thinking terrible, destructive mean thoughts, let itself be heard. I do live cognizant of my own shadow. It's pretty dark. I am capable of hatred and vengeance, of pettiness and meanness and grudge-holding, of bitterness and withholding. I'm grateful I don't act out of it much. When I do let slip, I feel terrible. But there it is. Part of being human.

Because I was in class all weekend, I saw my Little Sister yesterday. We made chocolate chip cookies, a la a seven-year-old. She loved squishing the gooey mass of dough between her fingers and getting flour all over my pants and sweater, all over the table and floor, over everything. She insisted on making one huge "cookie" which turned out surprisingly well once we had cut it into tiny chunks. then we watched Pride, a better-than-I-expected movie with Terrence Howard playing a swim coach. Watching the fine rippling bodies of the young swimmers was a great motivator for me to get back into the pool.

I'm reading Exit Ghost by Philip Roth--my Dad sent it to me. Dad loves Roth. I wasn't so enthusiastic--I read the first of the Zuckerman trilogy, when he's a young man, meeting his idol, Lonoff, and liked it in spite of myself. The second one, not so much. It felt too solipsistic, too much of the writer writing about sitting around isloated in his own study--and the guy is so sexist and so in love with his own sexism. It's hard to get over that. But he does make beautiful intelligent complex literate sentences and his take on America--or a certain slice of it--feels accurate and vivid.

My discomfort with Roth is personal and I own it--I don't want to ever be like him, solitary, self-absorbed in a hall of reflecting mirrors. (He's great at narrative, but all his characters sound just like him.) And I suppose I see a side of myself that gets so obsessed with my own work, my own process, that is capable of that kind of narcissism, and I recoil from it.

In the second Zuckerman book, the one I didn't like, Zuckerman the writer-hero is suffering from some mysterious pain. By the end of the book he is in the hospital, finding some measure of relief in self-forgetfulness, helping to tend the other patients and seeing that everyone suffers.

In this third one I'm reading now, the poor guy is seventy-one, incontinent and impotent because of prostate surgery a decade before. He's as lust-filled as ever, but I have more compassion for him. And his description of the zeitgeist of New York around the time of the 2004 election is fascinating, especially in light of how dramatically things have changed recently.

I reluctantly must admit that Roth is a major important great writer. I might not want any woman I care about to date him, but he did his work faithfully, and he's a pleasure to read. And here I have to admit another thing. I loved Junto Diaz' book Drown but I set aside Oscar Wao in order to read Roth. Oscar Wao isn't wowing me the way I thought it would. Yes, the language is amazing, but the story gets confusing. (Same for A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, which is a great novel, but I got lost halfway through the plot.) I'm not getting a clear enough narrative through-line to keep me turning the pages. There. I said it. Heresy.

Okay now I'm going to go swim because I sat on my butt eating raw cookie dough and popcorn all yesterday afternoon. And whenever it finally stops raining it will be close to summer, and sleeveless shirts and a wedding gown.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I just signed myself up for a core course in the Chemical Dependency Certification program at a local college. My first step towards moving into counseling work again. I have doubts about this--will I like it? Will I be bored? Will it be a waste of time and money? Are there any jobs out there? But I have been trying to get my butt into graduate school for twenty years now--longer--twenty-eight--yikes! And I am so interested in the brain and how it works and all the things that afffect it. So, here goes.

It's a program designed for working adults, so that means weekends--C and I won't get our lazy wonderful Sunday mornings together--but he supports me taking this new step. He knows that as the poet in the schools work has dried up I've been loathe to go out and beat the bushes to find or create more. It was great while it lasted, but I've been doing it for seventeen years or so, and free-lance work is unsatisfying in some ways because you never get to dig in and commit (of course you also avoid feeling trapped.) I am not enough of a hustler to make much money at it, I tend to lie back and let the gigs come to me. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they are great gigs, but I'm ready earn a steadier paycheck and use different parts of myself. (I realize that as the economy is melting down may not be the best time to invest in a career change, but hey. There will always be drug addicts.)

At the same time, work on the next book of poems continues apace. I have a few revisions to do, and a couple more pieces to write and then it's ready to start sending out. I need to turn my attention toward the book of essays next. I printed out and looked at the hard copy of the women's self-defense piece which I had thought was so wonderful only to discover that it wasn't. Wonderful. It was lame and stiff. How did that happen?

I'm about to run out the door to teach my Tuesday evening essay class. I love this class, so full and committed. Last Sunday I took my Little Sister and her real big sister out to San Ramon to hear the finalists for the Contra Costa Poetry Out Loud recitation contest. Several of my students were reciting--I wanted them all to win. I also loved the students I didn't coach. I still don't know who won because my little sister got so restless and squirmy that we had to leave at intermission--she just couldn't sit in her seat a moment longer.

I took them to Borders where she acted up even more, and after buying her a Barbie book (her choice, definitely not mine,) and her sister Twilight, took them home. It was raining on and off all day, which was great--we need it--but dates with my little sister always work better when we can be outside and she can run around.

Yesterday E and I walked along the Marina, talking about all kinds of things, plans, family, travels, houses, partners. It was bright and cold and windy (it's colder today.) I gave her the latest version of the new book to read--of course it has changed a little since I gave it to her, I keep adding to it. I found out from the publisher that See How We Almost Fly will be published in the fall of this year--probably in October. Look for it then. Pearl Editions.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Gentle, fertile, life-giving rain. We woke to it this morning, drumming on the roof. It's continuing gray, and I don't mind. Let it rain, we need it. Already, my neighbor's tiny seedlings look slaked and grateful. I'm sitting here working on the love book: 45 pages and counting so far. I need a minimum of 48, so I'm almost there. Of course, they have to be 48 good pages, and coherent. I'd like it to be fuller than that, at least 50 or 55 pages actually. But you can't force poetry (you can't force anything.)

I'm liking this process of building a book, consciously, poem by poem, in a unified way. It's satisfying to have a theme around which the poems can coalesce.

This past week I coached a couple of the winners of the school-wide Poetry out Loud contests; this Sunday is the county-wide competition. I'll go and bring my Little Sister--along with a coloring book, crayons, and fried pork rinds to keep her happy. Meanwhile, C reminds me of the March 1 deadline for the book of essays which I should be working on. And the new play...


This was my entry. I published it and went back to the poems. A gray day, quiet, the house quiet, just putting one line after another, occasionally emailing a poem to Ruth for her critique. Either she's getting soft in her old age or I'm really on a roll here, because she's been liking the poems I've been sending her--a lot. But still, nothing special.

"I have a very boring life," I told my essay class last Tuesday, only half-joking. "I get up, I roll over to the computer, I drink coffee, I write, I get the mail."

The phone rang. It was Marilyn Johnson of Pearl Editions. I won their poetry prize this year. See How We Almost Fly will finally be published!!!

I screamed in that poor lady's ear. She laughed. She's a poet herself, she understands. I was too excited to ask any of the relevant questions: when will it come out? Will there be any readings? I wonder about distribution. How do they get their books out?

Mostly I'm just so relieved. I called C at work and he was excited for me--champagne with dinner tonight. And I know the ritual I want to do with him. I want to take out the lists and lists and lists of contests to which I have submitted this book and just show him--just have him witness--how many there were. I want him to see, and I want me to see too. In fact, I want to count them up. Eight years.

If I am anything to anyone reading this blog, let me stand as a monument to persistence. Fourteen years of personals ads and blind dates and un-blind dates (which may as well have been blind) before I met my love, my life partner. I honestly don't know why it had to be so hard or take so long. My friends say I wasn't ready before, but I certainly felt ready. I was ready back in 1995! On the other hand, if I had succeeded in my quest, what adventures I would have missed along the way (but what other adventures I would have had.)

I don't know why things have to take the time they take, why some stuff comes so easily and a lot of it has to be worked for, sweated for--and in the end there's always that element of chance. This book has been good enough to be published for several years now--the individual poems that were in the ms were published, many of them had won prizes. It came in as runner-up finalist in several contests, but it never won; it was the proverbial red-headed stepchild. I loved it, but I was beginning to doubt--maybe it's just too raggedy, too inconsistent, about too many things at once. Why can't I write a book that's about all one subject, like Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, or that book by what's her name, the Pulitzer prize winner who won the Pulitzer Prize? Why do I have to be so all over the place?

And this is how it happens. Athletes go to the Olympics and either it's their day or it isn't. The judge likes the gymnastics routine or he doesn't. The audience comes out on a rainy night to see the play, or they stay home and watch Netflix. You go to the dance and you either meet the right partner or you don't. But you have to keep going to the dance--or doing something--or nothing happens.

Was it the right dance, this contest route? Sometimes I think I got addicted to the quest. I passed some kind of point of no return where not only did I not give up, it was as if I couldn't give up. The quest had taken on a life of its own. I hope this next project happens more quickly, more organically. This next book, the love book. How great would it be to just create things and hand them over to the production people and go on to creating the next thing instead of having to be an administrator for one's own work for years and years. But whether it happens or not, I'll be here at my desk, drinking coffee, looking at the mail, putting one line after the other.