Thursday, October 29, 2009

Christopher told me he was going to take me on a mystery date, and then let it slip that it was going to be to an exhibit on the history of the screwdriver. I was all excited about that when lo and behold, the car pulled up in front of a movie theater playing Bright Star.

What a beautiful movie. I predict that Abby Cornish will at least be nominated for Best Actress, that Kerry Fox will be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and that it will also be nominated in the categories of Screenplay, Cinematography and Costumes. It was a visual feast, and the writing and acting were wonderful. I loved the little pink-cheeked red-head who played Fanny Brawne's younger sister.

There was a naturalness and gentleness to the acting that was heartbreaking. I surprised myself by crying--a lot--as the lover's dreams of happiness slipped away. Keats knew all along, but she was young and naive and stubbornly clung to hope.

My favorite line in the movie was when Keats said, "A poet is the least poetical creature on earth," which is exactly what I think.

When we came home I got on Wikipedia and Google and read up a bit on the real history, which of course was more complicated and probably less pretty than what was portrayed in the movie. Fanny Brawne did marry someone else after Keats' death, and had three children, to whom she bequeathed the love letters he had written her. Keats himself had such a hard and painful life: poverty, abuse, lack of recognition, death of people close to him, illness, poverty, and loss, loss, loss. It's little wonder that he wrote "I have been half in love with easeful death." It must have come as a relief after so much suffering.

And with all that he wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, and Bright Star and When I have fears that I may cease to be and all the rest of it. An astonishing legacy crammed into just a few years of life.

What is most poignant is that according to his biographers and the movie, he died "thinking himself a failure." If he only knew.

I remember reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I was a child--it was one of the poems in the Louis Untermeyer book I loved, the Child's Golden Book of Poetry--and I loved it and responded to its strong rhythms even if I didn't understand it completely.

I was so touched at C's selflessness--deep in his heart of hearts I suspect he may have preferred the history of the screwdriver--but he manfully and graciously made this date about doing what I wanted and we even ate Chinese afterward instead of pub food. So sweet.

And now I'm packing to go teach at Esalen this weekend which should be great fun only I wish i felt better physically. I've got a nagging tickle in the back of my throat which I hope doesn't erupt into anything worse. It will be an intense day Saturday--I'll teach four sessions starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending after 9 p.m.--but hopefully I'll get a chance to just hang in the hot tub with Angela and my other SUN friends. It would be really great if I could somehow squeeze a yoga class or a massage into the weekend, but probably not. probably I'll just try to get to my classes on time and stay hydrated.

Sunday night we are doing a reading in Marin. It will be at 7:30 at the the Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, for anyone reading this who wants to come.

And: shameless self-promotion time. See How We Almost Fly can be ordered from

Monday, October 26, 2009

I didn't sleep well last night, and got up early to see sunrise. Thick painterly smudges of gold and purple and mauve. A hummingbird in the guava tree. I sat there for a long time on the couch by the window, coffee cup in hand. Watched the world wake up, the deserted street begin to stir. A guy on a bicycle, wearing a florescent yellow vest, cycled slowly up the hill. My neighbor warmed up her car, then left for work. It's impossible to catch the exact moment when the sky changes from mauve to tea-colored to clear daylight.

Now I'm at work at my desk. Love Shack is complete and I'm sending it to another contest, only I've changed the name to Tiny Paradise. I spent the last week obsessing over a long poem I was building called "Cathedral." Besieged poor Christopher with drafts the moment he walked in the door. Sent drafts to Ruth, to my other friends. Nailed my butt to the chair revising and revising.

Now I think it's done. Done enough. It could always be better--everything could always be better--and there's always more to say, but comes a time to let things go. I realize this is the job of an aging artist. What's your narrow place, what is your Red Sea, what's your Promised Land? The narrowness for me is ambition that is too small, an overly tight focus on just accomplishing and achieving. I'm addicted to striving for that. I'm not proud to say it but it's true.

The Red Sea I have to cross is the wilderness of the work itself, surrendering to the process, really letting myself go as deep and far into my subconscious mind as I can bear, as I have courage for. That is scary but exhilarating.

The promised Land I used to imagine was publication, minor fame, making it onto the radar screen of the general culture, earning a seat at the big kid's table when it came time to discuss the interesting questions. That's what i wanted. I still want that, honestly--I do. But I'm thinking that perhaps the Promised Land is something quite other than whatever my ego imagines it to be. Perhaps the Promised Land is just a feeling of connection to all people, something that, ironically, success might prevent one from feeling. Success could be great, but it could also be isolating. Anyway, success is success. Connection is connection. They are not the same thing.

I am still figuring out what the Promised Land is to me.

I told my essay writing students to take themselves on artist dates, a la Julia Cameron, but I haven't done that for myself in ages. I've been waiting around passively to see Bright Star, the movie about Keats, which Christopher doesn't have time for, instead of just taking myself to the movies the way I used to do when I was single. So today's the day, reward for a task completed.

This last weekend Wing It! had a series of three concerts where we performed for the 20th anniversary of the company. It was very sweet and deep. Beautiful things happened at each concert, and each one was completely unique, being improvised. I feel so lucky and grateful to be part of the company, to have so many people to love, to be able to be in long-term relationship with such fine souls. Despite--or maybe because of--our differences.

None of my closest relationships have been conflict-free. Christopher and I are a great pair, but we're so different in our styles, temperaments, strengths and weaknesses that it's funny. One of the things that unites us is mutual sarcasm, stubbornness, and fiestiness. Also, he told me last night that he spent a year immersed in Bach, thinking of little else. This was a propos of my asking him about the influence of church music on his composition.

This relates to Wing It! because for so long I've had such a hard time accepting that I am indeed nestled into a group comprised mostly of church-going Protestants, a surprising number of whom are or have been ministers. I just could not wrap my head around that. Now I'm married to a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and I so appreciate the virtues he has which come from that background; he's hard-working, humble, idealistic, and has great boundaries. I married my greatest teacher. Go figure.

So too, with me and Wing It!--it's not perfect, but it's very good. I'm glad even for the painful parts which shove me right up against my most alienated Jew self. I'm grateful for the opportunity to play and keep playing, to move through states, to keep getting a little better (hopefully,)to keep stretching and growing.

Today the lead story in the New York Times is about homeless youth. Kids as young as 11 and 12 are out on the streets because of the recession. Families are stressed and losing their homes; there's not enough space or money or food. Domestic violence is on the rise. The paper said perhaps the most tragic thing is how hard the kids work to elude capture by social workers whom they imagine are seeking them, when the sad fact is that parents often don't even report the kids missing. No one is even looking for them. They are truly invisible.

I think about the people I know and know of who are trying everything in their power to get pregnant--who are doing IVF and hormone treatments and investigating surrogates and buying other women's eggs in order to have a baby. How is it we live in a society in which one part of the population idealizes parenthood to such an extreme degree, while at the same time unwanted children starve or sell their bodies on the streets? How come millions are being spent every year trying to get menopausal women pregnant while there are real live born babies dying around the world of malnutrition and neglect?

C deals with those kinds of homeless and broken kids every day. Juvenile Hall sucks, but it's often the first place some of those children have ever experienced three meals a day. He brings home stories that are completely heartbreaking.

I can feel both sides of the issue; the longing for a pure unspoiled baby, a fresh start, a little bit of Heaven. The damage gets done so early, even in the womb. There are kids in the Hall who were crack babies, or have fetal alcohol syndrome. Who wants to take that on?

On the other hand, what happens to us as a country, as a world, when we prize the offspring of the affluent, and allow the children of the poor to die miserably in abandoned buildings?

We have been watching the HBO series Rome lately; C says he likes it even better than The Wire. I like it too but I don't know how much to trust the writing; were the ancient Romans indeed so similar to us? In their decadence and egotism and sexuality and sadism and voyeurism, they seem like a mirror of our own world, some of the least attractive parts of it. In the extremes of their classism, I think we are a bit different; at least now there is some lip service to the idea of universal human rights. At least most people nowadays agree that slavery is wrong.

But what do we practice? If someone doesn't have access to a warm bed, food, or medical care, does it really matter so much that he or she is not a slave?

One surprising thing that watching Rome is doing for me is in softening my attitude toward Christianity. I used to think that the Christian religion was a scourge on the earth, the cause of many of our current ills. But seeing the blood lust of Roman society before Christianity even arrived on the scene, I understand more how it was a kind of evolution, an improvement. Of course, once Rome got ahold of the religion, they turned it into something that was culturally close to what they had before; the Pope was just another kind of Emperor. The Crusades were another chance to rape and pillage. But the ideals of forgiveness and mercy, even if expressed as "We're better than you because we're Christian," were a step in the right direction. Even if we're not there yet. Even if we never get there.

Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, is said to have answered, "I think it's a very good idea!"

Shameless self-promotion section: you can order See How We Almost Fly from

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The youngest grandchild was fourteen months old, toddling around like a drunken sailor, occasionally crawling under the glass-topped dining room table to get away from the fray. The oldest party-goer was my Dad's cousin Arthur, a tall thin 83-year-old flirt. In between were all the rest of us, eating cake, talking, laughing, doing a jig saw puzzle, wrangling nieces and nephews--"Lucy! Get down!"--and looking at the album of photos which we compiled for Dad's 75th.

He cried when he looked at all the old pictures, some of which he had even forgotten existed. There was our mother, dark-eyed and gorgeous and young, before the M.S., before the bad times. There we all were with our terrible '70s haircuts, up against the car with the sun in our eyes, squinting.

Dad was overcome and overjoyed. And he cried when I showed him the poem I wrote for him, which I tucked as a surprise into See How We Almost Fly. I really don't have words for how much I love my father. I can't convey the utter sweetness of this man who would do anything, give anything for his children. He shows me the roundness of a life well-lived, coming full circle, the children's children on his lap, the overspilling living room.

There was a freak early snow on the day we celebrated his birthday--earliest in the year in recorded history. I had brought my long underwear and I wore it, despite everyone's teasing--yes, I am a California wuss and I need to be warm. Christopher and I went out and ate pub food. I wanted him to taste real New England onion rings which are so delicious and about a jillion calories apiece. He liked the clam chowder and the fish chowder.

Monday, my birthday, we wandered around Newburyport, a scenic little fishing town that has become a tourist mecca. Looked in windows at stores selling ships in a bottle, looked at boats on the dilapidated wharf, ate seafood chili, and wandered under leafy tree-cathedrals. I had taught poetry workshops in a nephew's fifth grade classroom and a niece's kindergarten earlier in the week, so there was a little bit of everything: work, play, family, and couple time. The one thing there was no time or space for was writing, so now I'm back at it, back at my desk, looking at rough drafts for some new poems, the revision of an essay about remarriage, and of course the new play, The Recruiter. Trying to decide which thing to work on first. Poems win.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The weather has turned gray and cold, which is depressing for life but good for work. There must be so many great English writers because the weather there is so dismal; it's harder here in California where the outdoors is so glorious it seems really stupid to stay inside trying to put words in some pleasing order.

Here's what I've been seeing, reading, and thinking about lately: after an appropriate mourning period after finishing The Wire, which was the best show EVER, we are now renting ROME from Netflix, which is good; not quite as good as the Wire, but it has the added benefit of teaching you some ancient history.

Rome is bloody and violent in a casual way that makes The Sopranos look like Romper Room. Watching it I could understand how, in context of the times, Christianity would seem a better option; when contrasted with human sacrifice and animal sacrifice on a large scale, with torturing and killing slaves for entertainment, with rape and incest as common ways of passing the time, Christianity could be seen as a real improvement. (When the Emperor converted to Christianity, then Christianity itself became Roman-ized, in the form of Roman Catholicism, and the old values of empire and violence became part of the religion, but that's another discussion.)

Anyway, we watched the first two episodes with interest, and two more just arrived in the mail, so we'll keep up with it for a while. I wondered where the Jews were when all this history was going on, and marveled at our survival in such a bloody, bloody time. My friend Marci says it was Jews (Jewish slaves?) who built the Coliseum. How did we ever make it?

We also went to the Berkeley Rep last weekend and saw American Idiot, the Green Day musical. If I were twenty-five I might find it inspiring and moving; as a fifty-year-old I was irritated not to be able to make out the lyrics for the first third of the show. I also found myself thinking, "Hair was better." Which is, perhaps, an unfair comparison: that was then, this is now. American idiot represents the anomie and angst of the generation that came up under 8 years of Bush, Jr. So there's a lot of rage and hopelessness and flailing, which we can all relate to, but which, by itself, doesn't necessarily make for good theater. You need some plot or characters or something to hang it all on. There were many moments of beauty; there was some very fun dancing, and a lovely aerial ballet featuring four wounded soldiers; there were some good voices and some nice guitar work. But four days after seeing it, I retain not one line or note. There's nothing running through my head from it, it's like the proverbial Chinese meal--none of it stuck.

Last night I went to see The Pillow Man at San Jose Repertory Theater, a black comedy about the random torture and murder of children. It's a brilliant play; like a set of those nesting Russian dolls, stories within stories, opening up to more stories. Among other things the play asks the question, "If art arose in human beings as a response to the horror of suffering, if telling stories is a way we soothe ourselves from suffering, a way we make sense of it, then what price are we willing to pay for our stories? Is the suffering and death of innocents necessary to a world in order for theater to exist?"

As the play progressed and as the gruesome stories piled up, I was caught between laughter and horror. It was so over-the-top it was funny, and, well, as my companion (not C., another friend) said, "Slipping on a banana peel is funny." I was raised by a woman who believed that slipping on a banana peel is not funny--we were not allowed to watch The Three Stooges because she found the image of people hitting each other on the heads with hammers to be repellant. I'm fairly certain she would have hated the Pillow Man.

For myself, I'm torn; I wonder why we find violence so entertaining. Are we just like the Romans? Their gladiators really did suffer and die, while our actors are only pretending, but is there something in the human psyche that revels in the spectacle of other people's pain?

The Hindus think of all of this drama of life that we undergo as "lila" (not sure if I'm spelling that right)--God's play. We appear to suffer; we appear to die. In reality, they say, life is everlasting, and all these terrible things, wars, famine, sicknesses--are just illusions. Our souls are untouched by it all. But something about this whole human experiment calls for drama, and in drama you have to have the play of light and shadow, good and evil, life and death. Even if, underlyingly, it's all one, we need our illusions for the sake of, I don't know--education? The testing of one's mettle for the progress towards enlightenment?

Which begs the question: would God enjoy watching The Sopranos? Would He or She enjoy gladiator contests, or wars? What kind of a huge (sick?) mind would God have to have to be entertained by this stuff we call life?

Sorry, but this is what watching Martin McDonagh's work does to me. It opens up these weird cynical dark places in my brain that I am normally not in touch with. McDonagh wrote The Pillow Man, along with six(!) other plays in one year--actually in one nine-month stretch--when he was 24 years old. This is kind of inconceivable to me as a writer--it's a feat akin to running a marathon every day. On the one hand it shows what a person is capable of if he focuses, and he doesn't have anything else going on in his life, and if the weather is really shitty. On the other hand, what the--? How is anyone sane supposed to be able to compete with that?

All his plays are filled with images of torture, cruelty, sudden death, and the like. There's a real shortage of what we could call the feminine principle. And they are funny. And brilliant in their own way, although after I saw the Beauty Queen of Lenane I wanted to throw myself under a train. It was the most godawful depressing disturbing thing I had ever sat through--and I've sat through some bad poetry readings and a fair amount of bleak theater.

Anyway, I appreciated seeing The Pillow Man because there was so much to chew on, even though it was depressing, and even though Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights also dealt with the theme of story-telling and the never-ending story without making you want to go out a down a bottle of Prozac. I wished they would have cut about twenty minutes out of the script and had an after-theatre discussion--although we wouldn't have been able to stay for it, as it was a weeknight--because I think the real value in this kind of work lies not only in experiencing it, but mainly in digesting it--with other people. Theatre, unlike reading, is a communal act, and the fact that we were all assembled there to hear these unspeakable stories, and watch some of them acted out, and even to laugh at some of the horrors our world comes up with, is something worth acknowledging.

I'm also reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a wonderful novel that was recommended to me by one of my writing students last year. I'm loving it, reading slowly and savoring as I go.

I finished a draft of the Second Marriage essay for MORE magazine--at least that's who I intend it for, I hope they'll take it. They still are holding onto a 900-word piece I wrote earlier in the summer. The magazine industry has been hit so hard by the recession that many editors have been laid off, and advertising pages lost, which means less pages available for essays and memoirs. Which means for me, that it's taking three times as long to hear back about work I've submitted, and that essays which might once have been taken--like the piece on self-defense for women which was near and dear to my heart--are being rejected. Not enough pages, the magazine is too skinny to support the more eccentric work.

It may, big picture, be a good thing, politically and ecologically speaking, for some of these glossies to shrink or go under completely. It's probably for the good of the planet if Revlon and Cover Girl and the people who make Botox and spend millions promoting their unnecessary products fail. But for those of us free-lancers who cling to the undersides of capitalism--and I realize, yes, it's parasitic--(but it's also a way to sometimes get paid good money for writing)-- it's a loss of an outlet. Then again, there's the hope that other venues will spring up, maybe ones that are healthier for civilization as a whole.

Okay, shameless self-promotion: you can order my book of poems, See How We Almost Fly from www.pearlmag/pearled.html, or from Amazon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's beautiful, cool sunny fall weather, but there's a sadness in the changing of the season. We want to hold the light and we can't. Figs are hardening on the tree. Feral kittens nowhere to be found this morning, although the mama is coming around faithfully. C is healing well but still in some pain. And my book is HERE and I've been sitting at my desk thinking up strategies for shameless self-promotion, which is what's needed, but kind of embarrassing. I do want to sell the book. Eight years in the making, the work deserves whatever publicity I can get for it. At the same time, the poems in it are old to me; I'm more interested in what I'm working on now, or what I'm about to work on. Last poems for Love Shack. Finish the essay I started about second marriage and the book proposal. Finish The Recruiter. Get the three little one-act plays of Glitter and Spew produced, separately or together. And keep going deeper into the heart of the world, leaves and light and people.