Confidently, I Love You.

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Love is fueled by confidence, which is a matter of belief.  Analysis, by it’s nature of breakdown, might lead one closer to the truth, or to a semblance of reality. When we love, we want it to be real, as Jane does in Austenland. But like the slippery nature of meaning through language, reality is complex. As my friend Courtney writes, by way of her father’s wisdom: “there is no reality, only perspective.”

I want to be confident that love is real and lasting, and that the perspective I have regarding love, is true.

 

That what lives in my heart is not so ephemeral and fleeting as the foam that dripped into the water from my bath pouf, in the perfect shape of a heart that disolved before my eyes.  A sign of love, but not love, just an image fading into the water.

But love is also a thing that works on me, like sandpaper on wood.  It is a knife that carves, trying to find the form within the block.

But enough of metaphor.

When it comes down to it, criticism, that knife that carves the wood, doesn’t make me feel love.  And I want to feel it so I can give it.  Criticism can give me writer’s block and lover’s block.  I guess I want praise, and that makes me needy.  I guess I want compliments, and that makes me greedy.  I want to be lifted up somehow, not shown where I fail.

But I also want the feeling of love, and the idea of love, to be real.

And not being perfect, all that praise and complimentary talk would ultimately lead me into enough self doubt as to wonder: is this real? Do I always want my relationships to be exchanges of non judgement?  Can I, as as my friend Mariela says, give what is vital to love–acceptance?   Acceptance for hard uncomfortable stones in my boots?

Can I accept that relationships involve criticism, and that I have given out loads of it over the years?  Is there a way to truth in love without critical judgement and analysis?  Do we always need the perspective of distance?  Or just some very close eye contact, and no words?

Let me be silent, and sweet, and kind. The truth is that I’m fire and ice and storm.  I’m earth, soil turning with blind worms.  I’m clouds and leaves that drop, brown and thirsty.

 

 

 

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A Poetic Encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye

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She loves mixtures of people.  She loves children and the way words weave themselves together, almost without effort.  She is a storyteller poet and a real-life, warm and wonderful human being.  She came to visit, and I was there in the room with my notebook and pencil, writing along with a master.  It was a cool spring day and I had been invited by a dear friend and mentor to sit in on a limited capacity workshop with Naomi Shihab Nye.

Most of what she shared for the writers in the room related to practice methods and approaches, and these ideas affirmed what I am already doing: living my life, writing in the spaces between the action of life.  In another suggestion, she offered, “Write three questions at the end of the day for a month, and then look at them.  You will discover that while you could have been concentrating and straining so hard for your “big idea” to arrive, the themes of your questions wove themselves together while you weren’t looking.”

She read a poem written by a class of preschoolers, and one by her mentor William Stafford.  Both had stunning imagery and emotional pivots.  Both were rich in meaning and lovely to consider.  Poetry is for everyone, she said.

For Everyone.  For little tiny children and for you and for me.

Here’s a link to another one of my favorites:

The Small Vases from Hebron

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178324

Poetry, according to Georgia Heard and Ralph Fletcher is three things:  Images, feeling and rhythm.  And it’s more.

It’s people and their relationship with life.  It’s magic and surprise.  It’s a voice speaking in a different way than we talk in our ordinary exchanges.  And in the case of Naomi Shihab Nye, it is love and it is the power to move different people closer to one another.

Consider Gate A4, her signature piece:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/gate-4

 

At the Q & A session after her evening reading event, I requested one of my favorites and she generously read it at the closing finale.

Supple Cord

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179544

 

What inspires me about Nye is her positive encouragement  for writers. She calls us to keep writing, to keep sharing work.  Enter contests, form writer exchange groups.  Reach out across miles and difference.

One person asked if she felt like she ever had to sacrifice or give anything up for her art.  To which she said, “I knew by the time I was seven years old, I was going to be a poet.  So no, I never felt like I gave anything up.”

She said that literature “gives us space to understand our lives better.”  And that “life moves so fast, we must move through it very slow.”

Here’s the short poem I wrote in response to her prompts during the workshop.  I’m stunned at how it seems to solve my main writing problem.

(Untitled)

Why do I avoid returning to the longer project as if I am afraid of it and what it says about me?

I remember being afraid of the black bears in the Shenandoah but I don’t remember the weight of the backpack while I walked carefully by.

 

A final reminder and a gift for all of us who are struggling in the midst of the process:

“Nothing is wasted.”

Thank you Naomi Shihab Nye, for all you are giving.

 

This is The Story of You Book Review

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Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude.  The best stories do this.  They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller.  Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.

The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy.  Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters.  That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.

Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media.  Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems.  Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.

This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic.  There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family.  I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease.  Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely.  Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often.  The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry.  Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict.  But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.

If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft.  My favorite line of the book:

 

“We die backward.”

 

In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death.  In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing.  The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves.  People died when Sandy hit.  Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news.  Maybe only if we knew them personally.  But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.

As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life.  None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us.  Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.

My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep.  Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn.  In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing.  I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers.  The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins.  The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss.  Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.

 

“We die backward.”  Indeed.

 

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you?  Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres.  Is it poetry?  Is it fiction?  Is it memoir?  Is it mystery?  While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all.  Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact.  Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another.  This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.

There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.

Here’s one of those treasures:

 

“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys.  I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark.  I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano.  I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves.  The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016.  Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)

 http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/p/this-is-story-of-you.html

BethKephart

Learning the Peace Response

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In the wake of bloodshed in a Parisian concert hall, I shared a graphic of a peace sign with the Eiffel Tower in the center.  An old friend from school left this comment: “end Islam, end these attacks.”

It seems like such a simple answer.  Let’s just wipe out everyone who is associated with terror, without consciousness about people who may be practicing a world religion but who do not hold the seed of killing planted in their hearts. It would be safer for everyone that way…

My response was to say that wiping out a world religion will not stop violence, even if you could somehow stop people from believing what they have been educated to believe.

And this caused my friend to reconsider his earlier statement, agreeing with me that perhaps a reform would help.

But instead of worrying about trying to “fix up” someone else’s religion as an outsider, I propose that we begin teaching pacifism as a practice in our society wherever we are, if that is in our home, school, workplace or church.

Because if the response of violence is a learned and therefore acceptable behavior in every society, then peace is also a learned behavior, but one that is underfunded, under valued, and misunderstood.  People think of pacifism as a passive, non response, no responsibility kind of stance.

And it’s not at all like that.

I am still learning on my journey to becoming a pacifist, and plenty of times I have struggled with the impulse to fight back at some injustice or personal offense.  But I’m learning new tools to help me navigate those times when my heart is burning with flaming rage and wants so much to take action, so that I can live with much less regret, and a lot more gratitude.  In the process, I have become a happier person.  And the peace that I have chosen to practice is now arriving in my life as a gift from others.

We homeschool in our house, so it might seem unfair of me to suggest this, but if our public educational institutions made “peace and justice studies” a special like P.E., Art, and Technology, to teach children how to respond in nonviolence, the effect would be significant.  It would help our young generation be able to appropriately respond to the random acts of violence which they will face every day, in places near to home and far away.  There is so much more to peace than people understand.  It’s not about peace signs and hippies, or white doves.  It’s not a symbol of the holidays, but a way of thinking about our responses to unfair situations and trouble.  It can lead us to avenues of communication that reveal deep truths and compassion.

What I hope to convey here is that people will respond how they have been educated to respond.  And too many times, in regions all over the world, the options for peaceful resolution are squashed, so that politics and religion and ethnicity and technology and money and greed and revenge take priority over human life.

Derek Flood, author of Disarming Scripture, wrote a great article for the Huffington Post that attends to the problem of protecting vulnerable people from harm without going the route of war.  He writes:

“What’s crucial to understand is that nonviolence is not simply a refusal to add harm (whether that harm is physical or spiritual/emotional) but more importantly it involves action to restore, heal and make things right. So in the case of the Islamic State, what we need to ask is this:  what can we do to make things right?  What can we do to protect the vulnerable? What can we do to stop the violence?”

He then goes on to quote Erin Nimela, who proposes three practical ways to do this:

  1.  Immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties.
  2. Fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged. (terrorists are fulfilling these needs in those communities right now.)
  3. Fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistant movements.  (Between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.)

Here is Flood’s article in full:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-flood/is-there-a-nonviolent-isis_b_5670512.html

A Person is Not a Country

100_2062The following poem will appear in my memoir, Riding Shotgun, a work in progress that gets a small but steady amount of attention every week.  If one uses the “birthing” metaphor for book writing, then I’d say that the rough draft is entering it’s third trimester.  I’m hoping to tie up all the loose ends and create a moving finish by December.  In case you are wondering, “it’s a girl!”

A Person is Not a Country

A person is not a country

not a food like tacos

Not a pigment like black or white

or brown yellow red

or blended shade that forms in the development of

skin organ inside the womb.

A person is a person and not a piece of cloth

draped over brow and face,

I always wonder how those stay in place.

A person is a person and not the region of their origin,

the place where runaway slaves found freedom,

the place where snow falls on a child’s dark eyelashes,

lace against delicate petals.

The place were breath is visible, where cocoa steams

from styrofoam cups on the sidelines of the high school football game.

Where you speak the way it sounds funny and strange in the south.

A person is a person and not the weapon they carry,

hidden, disguised, or blatantly worn in the open,

that sign of fear.

A person is a person and not the poverty they are running from,

like you did, Dad,

when you kept on going to school even though your mother

tragically died,

those horrid, open wounds,

the eating away of her flesh when the cancer crept out to the surface,

and you were there carrying her to the outhouse

and she cried of embarrassment

because you were her boy,

and fourteen.

A person is a person and not the car they are driving

while you sit shotgun dreaming of another kind of life to be living

away from all the things you think you need to be or say or do

to win approval and security and pride and acceptance, and literally,

food.

Be shameless in your skin

and leap from atop the racing stagecoach

when you find that you’re passing a lovely garden

reminiscent of Eden.

Let the shotgun fall where it may.

A person is a person and not the lies they tell

nor the penance they long to be released from.

 A person is not their sadness

nor longing nor disappointments, nor even their passing joy.

And a person is worth the same worth as the next,

born today, born yesterday, born in the future,

struggling to survive.

A person is a person and will change at a rate

faster than a country organizing revolution

or deciding to save what’s left of nature,

the life sustaining provider

they assume will recover and be generous to us

after the slaughter and poison and progress.

A person is a person and not a country,

a visitor,

for a moment

then gone,

even after all that work,

or because of it.