Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Relaxation and rigor. Those are the two things I need to do what I came here to do. The writing can't flow properly when I am not relaxed. The joy in the process doesn't happen when I am not relaxed. But rigor is the other half of the equation. The rigor to keep going back and refining the thing until it is right. I am constantly humbled by how long this process takes me. Perhaps rigor is another word for patience. The rigorous patience it takes to wait and work and rework and have faith that it is all adding up to something.

Yesterday I received a rigorous critique of my third (more like 300th) draft of The Recruiter. The critiquer was a friend and brilliant theater director, actor, and playwright whom I trust. I was grateful for his blunt words even though of course what I wanted to hear was, "It's wonderful! Let's stage it right away! I'm sure it will win a Pulitzer!"

I was also grateful that my friend didn't have time to read it for a week or two after I sent it to him, because had I received the critique when the umbilical cord was still throbbing and pulsing with fresh blood then I might have had a harder time digesting it. By the time he got back to me, I had moved on to obsessing about something else. Such is the nature of obsession, writerly or otherwise.

Last night I read my poetry at Good Vibrations in San Francisco, in a group reading with some other writers. We each just had five minutes to read, and the store provided wine, sparkling water, and dark chocolate truffles (there are advantages to doing a poetry reading in a sex shop). It went well; I felt present, much more present than last Sunday when we did the same reading at the Berkeley store. At that reading I wanted to sell books and to that end had schlepped in a Trader Joe's shopping bag full of 'em. I sold two and then of course was disappointed and left the reading lugging my heavy bag and queasy with ego.

I realized that I felt embarrassed at Sunday night's reading--not because of the sexual content, but because of the narcissism, my own as well as other people's. The yearning for attention, "Look at me! See how sexy, brilliant, provocative, bold, daring etc. I am!" I saw a middle-aged woman whom I think had had some work done (plastic surgery) and another who was wearing too much make-up and I realized I didn't want to be a woman like that.

Ever since I was a young 18-year-old poet I've been doing readings, dressing up a little, nothing too fancy, but definitely showing my body to best advantage. Nothing wrong with that, but there was something a little bit of the marketplace about it, "Buy me! Buy my poetry!" In a capitalist system, you're always selling something, yourself, your image, your work, your words, your time, your worth. I accept that this is the reality of trying to make a living, but it's the opposite energy from the place where poetry comes from, which is a much more quiet, receptive, humble place.

At 51, I'm dealing with how to let go of the sexy girl I was and embrace the woman I am now. It's hard to age gracefully! Some women chop off their hair and wear elastic-waist pants and sensible shoes and just call it a day. others dye their hair, slather on the cosmetics, and if they can afford it, start to have procedures that make them look like unnaturally startled deer caught in the headlights of onrushing time.

I want neither. Which is the middle way?

At the reading last night I wore jeans and a nice loose-fitting top--no cleavage-- brought no books, wore a little mascara and some lipstick, and just concentrated on the task at hand, to experience my poems as I read them. And I enjoyed it and so did the audience and that was enough.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What to Remember When Waking
by David Whyte © 1999 Many Rivers Press

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I’ve been thinking about Pat Robertson.

Yeah, I know, he’s an asshole, and he gives religion a bad name. Okay, that's obvious. That's shooting fish in a barrel. The thing I've been thinking about that makes me uncomfortable is how there's a part of him in all of us, the part that seeks to blame the victim, to find “reasons” for terrible things happening to innocent people, to make God over in our own image.

It makes me uncomfortable because it indicts me and my friends and all those who claim to be on a spiritual path, who search for reasons in the face of mystery.

Sometimes I’m as scared of what’s going to come out of the mouth of some New Age people I know as I am of the far-right fundies like Robertson. At least you can smell the right wing preacher-types coming. You don’t expect any better. But I think what he’s expressing is just fear, the fear that many of us feel when we’re confronted with the unfairness and seeming randomness and arbitrariness of the way suffering gets handed out in this world. The not-knowing when you and your loved ones kiss each other good-bye what will happen before you meet again. If you meet again.

In the face of this great dark cloud of not-knowing, in the face of our terrifying vulnerability, it is tempting to make up stories especially stories which have as a theme how we are better and different than those who suffer. Or how we would suffer better and differently than them--or better yet, how we would find some magical means of escape. Child's thinking. Sometimes it gets expressed as theorizing that said sufferers must somehow must have brought it on themselves, or how it's "karma".

Pat Robertson revealed the ugliest side of himself in public in the media. I’ve sometimes heard people say equally odious but more carefully-couched things in private, and I’ve also witnessed myself making ignorant judgments. It seems built in to the human psyche to look for cause and effect, which is fine--that's what brought us the discovery of gravity and keeping our fingers out of the fire, and ultimately to a moral code. But from there it's a slippery slope to thinking we can explain away all phenomena, that we can somehow reduce Life to a series of neat little theorems.

So while I agree that Pat Robertson is an asshole, I think most of us are at least partly implicated in this kind of reductive thinking as well. Which means we are at least part-asshole too. At the very least we have assholes, and perhaps the best we can do is learn not to talk out of them but use them for the purpose which God intended.

On another (hopefully more elevated) note, I did a little research and then gave my money through Partners In Health, Paul Farmer’s organization which he started with Ophelia Dahl twenty years ago. I chose them because they are already set up in Haiti, luckily in the provinces and not Port-au-Prince, and so their health clinic is intact and they have doctors already working on the scene. Plus I wanted Ophelia Dahl being interviewed by Katie Couric last night and she definitely knows what she is talking about.

Haiti is a complicated place and it really helps to have deep and expensive knowledge of the place before you go in and start helping. I think PIH will be able to deliver aid quickly and effectively and with cultural sensitivity. That said, if I didn't give my money to them, I would feel comfortable giving to Doctors Without Borders or Yele Haiti, or the International Red Cross.

It’s hard to focus on finishing a revision of The Recruiter—in fact it’s been impossible to focus. All I want to do when I’m in front of the computer is tune in obsessively to various news channels and read or watch interviews about Haiti. In my spare time I obsess about why i am worrying whether or not Massachusetts will pick a Democratic senator. I mean, my home state, Massachusetts! How could they not?

Then I listen to a pediatrician describe children dying of treatable wounds because they have no medicine—and the medicine is there, it just hasn’t been unloaded off the airplanes yet, because—because why? I don’t know. I don't know anything.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

There are personal things going on, the usual and the unusual--worries about jobs, sendings out of manuscripts, working in the garden, coordinating poetry gigs in schools, attempting another rewrite of my play--but mostly I am thinking about Haiti, reading the Times reporting on Haiti, imagining the streets of Haiti--which were poor when I visited them, in 1982, and are now unimaginable.

The front page of the New York Times is "Haiti in Ruins," accompanied by some of the most heartbreaking photos I have ever seen. Haiti was always in ruins. I've never seen slums like the slums of Port-au-Prince, children playing in alleys running with sewage, people living in shacks and huts with dirt floors and chickens clucking on the crowded streets in the middle of a crowded city.

When people are poor in America they still have lots of stuff. You can be poor here, financially, and still have things, possessions, because there is so much excess in this country that it's possible to live pretty well on other people's cast-offs and throw-aways. In Haiti I saw people who really had nothing, whose clothes were rags, whose children were naked. I saw women who could and did carry a bucket of water or a load of washing or a big bundle of sticks on top of their heads and walk barefoot like that, over miles of steep rocky mountain paths, and I witnessed men whose skinny muscles looked like ropes, men harnessed to sledges like beasts of burden, whose work was to pull enormous loads until their veins exploded.

I saw crippled people in Haiti who had no wheelchairs and were carried around on the backs of their friends and relatives. I met women who had borne fifteen children and buried half of them. I smelled the burning dung they used to cook with when they could not get wood.

It's hard to imagine Haiti worse off than when I saw it in 1982, and yet I know things have gotten dramatically worse since then. And now this earthquake. I don't know what to do, other than give money and hope it helps. What I keep with me about Haiti and Haitians more than the material poverty is the spirit of the place. it's a place of trauma and survival and imagination.

Haitians live deeply in their belief in magic. It's all they have. They are people of imagination, people who make cupcakes out of dirt when they are hungry, and tell stories, and paint pictures. The place is exploding with creative talent born of desperation and spirituality and hunger. A potent mix. If we could find a way to export that--to the benefit of the people themselves--then we would have a solution for Haiti.

Haiti's great natural resource is her people. Their warmth and compassion and pain and ingenuity and songs and stories. Their sense of aesthetics and their elegance and grace under pressure. I worked at Haitian refugee centers in Miami and in Boston for years, teaching ESL and doing low-level social work. I learned much more from them than I ever taught.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Saturday night we danced--under a just-past-full moon--at Marci and Mark's intimate backyard wedding. So sweet. Such a long journey with all its twists and turns, for them to get to this place, for us to get to be there with them.

I met Marci years ago, in yoga class. She was a jock then, and I was--and am--a yoga class clown--but we bonded over tight hips and hopeless headstands. And years and years of crazy dating experiences, insane roommates, and a couple of weekend getaways to yoga retreats.

There was one memorable Nazi Boot Camp Ashram where conditions were extremely spartan--bunk beds, and no toilet in the room. The swami had been out of circulation for forty or fifty years and he breezily dismissed ordinary life as "samsara" without, it seemed to me, ever having experienced it. The food was vegan--very very vegan--and our fellow participants were an odd lot. There was an ex-Marine who was detoxing from PTSD, there was a plump mother-daughter duo on a special diet, there were the usual visionaries and seekers and finders.

I think Marci and I were among the less spiritual people there--we were reprimanded for skipping the 5 a.m. meditation (an hour of meditation, followed by an hour of chanting, followed by an hour of yoga--and THEN you got breakfast, or something they called breakfast.) The swami's "adjustments" were rather rough, but I felt surprisingly great after we left--light and lithe and all stretched out. I remember with glee stopping to get gas on the way back and re-toxifying at the mini-mart--with potato chips, dark chocolate, and Diet Pepsi. And laughing and laughing.

There was another yoga and meditation weekend which was a little less severe. There were many "girl's nights," with videos, food and true confessions. Lots and lots of girl talk.

And there she was the other night, radiant in white, in her own home, with her best friends around her, glowing and laughing and crying. Beautiful. If Sandra Bullock and Salma Hayak had a lesbian affair that produced a love child, that is who Marci would resemble.

Christopher took some great photos. My favorites were two of Marci and I pointing upwards. She was actually showing me how some tablecloths had been pinned to a frame to create a tent effect, but it looks as if we're pointing up at the stars, or a distant planet. Which is what Love seemed like to us back in the years when we first met as single girls--like some very distant, unattainable place. And here we were, here we are, having landed on that star, still in our space-suits, breathing.


Fun fact: Tony Kushner gained 100 pounds while he was working on Angels in America. Yes he did. He retreated to the woods with boxes of Oreos and other necessities and wrote his ass off.

Far be it from me to compare myself or what I am doing with Angels, which i consider one of the works of genius of our age, but let me just say that finishing The Recruiter is proving to be fattening and difficult.

I know I have no right to complain. I know I chose this. I know I am privileged godamnit, but it's hard right now. I was so close to what I thought was the finish line. It was only after consulting with my team--that is, the few die-hard, stalwart friends who will still read my emails and the repeatedly revised drafts which i attach to them--and you are angels, you are worth your weight in gold and I can never repay you--anyway, the consensus is that it's Still Not Done.

It's close. I can smell the champagne waiting for me at the finish. But I have more research to do, and more writing to do. And I don't wanna do it. Don't want to go to that place I have to go to with my main character, Tony. Don't want to have to feel my way through all the shit that he's feeling. My butt hurts. My back hurts. I'm tired of looking at this little screen, these characters.

At least I now have an epigram for the play, from Anna Deavere Smith's book Talk To Me, which I have been re-reading. This is what she wrote about Clinton whom she interviewed as the Monica Lewinsky ('memba her?) scandal was breaking.

“Our ability to create reality, by creating fictions with language, should not be abused. The abuse is called lying. Perhaps we understand the precariousness of our situation. We as linguistic animals. At the very least language is currency as we create “reality.” To abuse language, to lie, is to fray reality, to tatter it. Those in public life who create our values are especially asked not to “lie.” Yet most of us say, at least, that we believe we are often being lied to.”

She also said that--given the fact that many Americans expect politicians to lie, and/or mess around-- "Perhaps Clinton's downfall was that he was too expressive in a time when studied nonchalance is the status quo."

Interestingly, Jeannette Walls' book Dish, about the interpenetration of gossip to news, and news to gossip, opens with Clinton and the Lewinsky incident. Remember how that dominated the airwaves for months and months even as everyone professed disgust with the coverage? There have been so many many instances of politicians' sexual shenanigans coming to light in the past year I can't even count them all. And so what, really? And yet the issue of the use and abuse of language is still crucial.

Okay, now I have to go back to reading the closing pages of The Good Soldiers, and re-entering that world...

Friday, January 01, 2010

I am, in general, a List Queen. I make to-do lists every week or so. I celebrate every new year, fresh start, new beginning I can--Rosh Hashana, Chinese New Year, all Solstices and Equinoxes, new moons, you name it. If there's an excuse for a clean slate and a nice list of projects to be accomplished, there I am with my colored pens, drawing it up. It certainly beats the hell out of actually doing the work itself.

So I tried to think of new year's resolutions for 2010. But the truth is, I don't have the heart for it. My friend Genie Zeiger has died, too young, in Massachusetts. My sister sent me the beautiful front-page obituary from Western mass yesterday, with Genie';s lovely smiling face on the cover. Genie was a sweetie-pie, a poet, enthusiastic and tender and eager. She was sixty-six when she died but very youthful the way artists are, no matter what their chronological age.

So her death and carla's health, and the economy and the state of the world in general. I saw another artist friend at the year-end "Circle Sing for Life" celebration; you get in a circle with other people and sing for hours and hours. Linda Tillery, another one of my artist-heros whom I am proud to call a friend, was there leading the circle for a couple of hours. Afterwards she talked with my friend mary and me. "Two thousand and nine was just a turd of a year," she said. "Let's hope two thousand and ten will be better."

I had to agree. Even though great things happened for me personally this year, they happened against the backdrop of terrible things happening for other people, including some of my loved ones. And there's the overriding tension not knowing if our teaching livelihoods are secure or not. Unless some kind of miracle happens for the California state budget, i don't actually see that situation getting remedied in the next twelve months but I hope I am wrong.

Meanwhile I still have plenty of goals (as opposed to resolutions.) I plan to finish the next draft of The Recruiter, finish the book proposal, publish the next book of poetry, apply for some grants, write more, write better, all that. I'll always have lists of goals. But resolutions? Only two: drink more water and be kinder. To myself as well as to everyone else. The rest is commentary.


We've had quiet holidays...I've been reading Anna Deavere Smith's wonderful book, Letters to a Young Artist. It's really inspiring--she's really inspiring to me as an artist and an intellectual. I love her long-running inquiry into the state of the American character via the language we use. I sit fascinated in front of my computer when I should be writing, listening to her interview with Bill Moyers (google it! It's worth the thirty minutes!!) I want to study with her, to sit at her feet. I would happily carry her bags, pick up her take-out, wash her laundry to know what she knows. But it's clear, from her book, what she knows--it's what carla knows as well, what all the artsists I admire know: hard work.

Joy too--fun, too--but also, unremitting practice and discipline. I was delighted to learn in this book that ADS is a committed swimmer, (like me!) and that she also does yoga and vocal exercises daily. I think the demands of work in the theatre, when met whole-heartedly, constitute one of the most complete trainings a human could ever get. To be an excellent theatre-worker, you have to know about your body, intimate; you have to know how to train and work with your physical and vocal potentials and limitations.

You also get an unending education in history, literature, sociology, philosophy...Deavere Smith is so erudite that even reading a relatively simple book of hers sparks my mind by osmosis. As I read her book, I began to understand more deeply what my play The Recruiter is about. And this new understanding necessitates another draft, a restructuring. So here we go again.

Okay, there are more goals for the new year: one is to master a new piece on the piano, now that "Louie Louie" is solid. C is encouraging me to tackle a simplified version of a Beatles song--that way I could sing along with myself as I played. I never thought I'd learn piano in my fifties, but it's really fun. As I listened to him play the blues last night with a musician friend I wished to learn that form as well. There's really no end to it.

We saw District 9 the other night which was great fun. I love the mock-umentary style with the hand-held camera, and the goofiness of the whole thing, despite the underlying seriousness of its message. We watched the special features afterward and I noticed that the director was about twelve years old--alright, maybe thirty, tops--and that he freely admitted that he didn't really know what he was doing when he started the project but was making it up as he went along. This was all the encouragement I needed. I nudged C in the ribs. "Hey, we could make a movie!"

Later, my friend Shazam came over for New Year's Eve and we began plotting it out on a napkin at the kitchen table. Video technology is so easy, so accessible now. We could do something like the Blair Witch Project, which was made on a shoestring and has raked in millions. So maybe that's a third New Year's resolution: to finish the projects I already have on tap and then to cut loose and make our own movie...