Monthly Archives: May 2014

Thank You, Maya Angelou

“I believe the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.”  —  Maya Angelou

I never met Maya Angelou, never hugged her, never kissed each cheek, never told her “thank you” in person.  I hoped that I would someday, but knew that I would not, given her fragile health these past years.

Though I never met her, I considered her a mentor.  More than a mentor, through her unique love and hope and creativity, she’s helped me believe in myself and my choices.

There was an interview with her that I found on YouTube many years ago, and in it she tells a story.  The interviewer asks Angelou about her days working as a prostitute.  The interview seems to have been deleted from YouTube, because I haven’t been able to find it for sometime.  In lieu of posting that now lost interview, I am liberally paraphrasing Angelou in the following, but the story’s heart and main details remain intact:

“I was at a book signing for [her latest book] and there was a long line, going nearly around the block.  It was during the day, and I noticed a girl in the line.  She was obviously a working girl.  Her nails were long and painted brightly, she had the false eyelashes, bright lipstick, her clothes were a working girl’s clothes, but there she was standing in line, probably after working most of the night, to have me sign her book.  I smiled to her when she came to the front of the line.  She handed me her book and said softly, ‘you give me hope.’  That’s it, right there.  That’s the whole of life.  If I gave this one girl hope, I knew I had done well during my life.”

Angelou’s voice broke as she recounted the story, and her eyes teared.

Angelou brightly shone her faith in life and love through selflessness, and, from what I have read and seen, she never buried the working woman’s narrative under shame, or lied about it.  Of all the tales she could have told about her years as a prostitute, she chose this simple story of hope.  I believe that some of Angelou’s strongest moments as a writer and a human confident in her creativity may have come specifically from her work experience, in which her originality, sexuality, and ability to love deeply were expressed.

Her poem “Phenomenal Woman” seems to me to have emerged from those years, for it is a singularly redemptive expression of self-worth, and the radiant power of the creative self in the world, no matter the world.  Though the poem can be read as a black woman’s affirmation of herself against a white class system, I believe the poem touches on deeper themes and realities, and it seems more akin to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its spiritual orientation and celebratory grandeur.  Whereas Whitman locates his epiphany’s source in nature (“The Leaves Of Grass”), Angelou boldly locates her epiphany in her own being and body.  In its deceptively simple swagger, Angelou fearlessly seizes self-splendor, the shining self that we bring to the world, when we’re connected to the mystery in ourselves, the transcended self beyond limits, the self beyond the “I”.  Her life’s wounds dictated that Angelou dive into a profound center of love and spiritual luminosity, and spiritual beauty exudes from the poem’s seductive details, a work of singular grace and inimitable style.

Angelou will teach for decades to come, her courage echoing as a celebratory song to those finding their own voices.  This past week, bemoaning my proofreading shortcomings in ‘Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,’ Angelou encouraged me to love my writing, embrace it wholeheartedly, and continue confidently, without second guessing myself.  For a few hours after my posting my entry, I remembered the following line:  “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

Thank you, Maya Angelou.  Two kisses, and a hug.

And thank you.
 

[http://youtu.be/VeFfhH83_RE]

 

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Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Thoreau admonished “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Emerson responded, “Don’t you think one simplify would have sufficed.”

As I go back and scan these entries, I cringe at their tediousness.

Simplicity isn’t making its way on the page.

That’s okay, for now.  This entry is an apology, and an acknowledgement that fiction and nonfiction are entirely different animals from expository writing, no matter how lyric and luminous an expository essay may be.  For too many years, I earned kudos for my writing, because I mastered the formula and stuck to it.  I was like James Patterson, I knew exactly what my audience wanted, and invariably used it: introduce the topic, ask a question, form a hypothesis, succinctly state the thesis, develop an argument paragraph by paragraph, nod to the alternatives, summarize the argument, then give the conclusion, usually in a clever or nearly poetic summary.  Wow them.

I did well at that formula.  Really well.  So well that I created a comfort zone that was impenetrable, as I knew how to work the formula without failing.  Much of my adult life was spent hacking out sentences in the wildly exciting craft of revision.  Revision, revision, revision.  There’s no simple way to an elegant essay, other than revision.

I succeeded in my academic studies, not because I was brilliant, but because I was willing to put in inordinate hours revising.  Sentence by sentence, I was a workhorse of wordsmithing.  I was also good at close reading, good at synthesizing the seemingly disparate, and good at interpreting metaphors, which when served by the excessive labors of revision, earned me my coveted rewards.  I aimed to please, and I knew how to impress my audience of one, my professor, if I could hide behind the work of others, use my handy dandy formula for success, and spend sleepless nights and days revising.

I’ve abandoned that model, to draw from a deeper creative well.  Those years gave me extraordinary writing practice, but now I’m dealing with my own voice, my own stories, my own narrative construction.  The consequent prose often flounders, struggles to find its way in this new landscape, isn’t always certain of itself, and the excesses of that exploration are repetitive and strained.

A criticism of the blogosphere is that there’s little editing done.  I agree.  We rarely see our work’s shortcomings without distance, and social media’s immediacy fails to recognize the space needed for writing’s refinement.  No matter how much I edit these entries, they aren’t what they should be.  They are blog entries.  They are cumbersome.  They are redundant.  They are poorly proofread, that is, with the eyes that wrote them.  They are me thinking out loud much of the time, trying to tie big disparate life elements together in a little package, and I have yet to master that creative bent without the expository essay formula.

However, I am doing what my “About” page states I will be doing here, flushing out ideas, honing my voice, and discovering more about this new territory.  In this regard, I’ve been successful.  More than successful, for these forays have richly informed my evolving narrative choices.

Simplicity is work until it becomes habit, in life and in art.  In life, it’s both discipline and awareness, daily choosing what works over what doesn’t, until habits are lived without thinking about them.  In writing, simplicity and elegance mean making every word matter.  That’s the practice of writing, and the craft of revision.  Sometimes, it’s better to throw down as many words as possible, muck around in the ideas, polish the prose as much as time allows, and then move on, having gained experience in what works and what doesn’t.

In an Ira Glass interview that I posted earlier this year, he exhorted writers beginning their career to produce as much as possible.  Just produce.  Throw it all down.  Make the mistakes.  Learn.  Move on.

In artistic terms, I think that means that the burgeoning writer will be Thoreau like, saying the same thing over and again, when one word would have sufficed.

Thanks for subscribing to these updates and following my journey.

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On Truth

I’m not a big fan of the word “truth” — the people I know who cling to it most tightly tend to be dogmatists, and not much engaged with reality’s malleable and imaginative aspects.  Truth becomes a function of certainty, the belief that the world exists in a real way, and there are usually prescriptions for how we are to interpret this reality.  That seems to me counterproductive at best, functionally delusional at worst.

My assertions may sound strange, especially as I spent a huge chunk of my life studying philosophy, and pursued an equally strange creature called “God,” or enlightenment.

Love, the practice of compassion, the art of forgiving ourselves and the world, is really the only principle — I deliberately write principle and not truth — that exists, and the best we can do is approximate what that principle looks like in the moment.  For myself, the best response is usually intuitive, not something that can be predetermined.  The other stuff seems to me just the mind doing its thing, and should be regarded as such, the mind doing its thing.

These days, I’m not too enamored of the mind.  I am more or less bemused by its convolutions.

As I set down my story, and a series of other stories, I’m pretty appalled at who I’ve been, and at times gobsmacked by who I’ve become.  Not because I was such a horrible person, or that I am so demonstrably awesome now.  I’m appalled at the self-destructive behaviors and the self-loathing, the amount of unnecessary angst that I carried as a personal truth written in an unalterable understanding of my story, and my self.  It was all so warped, a singularly stellar production of my mind.  Who I was is now deeply disconcerting and very uncomfortable, the self-love and self-awareness being more constant with time.

Which got me thinking about all the melodrama and shock value that have been emerging from the pages.  I find myself wanting to edit who I was, because that person’s perceptions were so unbelievably skewed.  I know why she ended up that way, but seeing her play out the things she played out, makes me more than a little nervous.

Not in the specifics, but in the emotional lenses that got her there.  My inclination is to give her an eye roll and hit her upside the head, which was precisely the problem, because all she ever wanted from me was a gentle hug and some understanding.

So I have been questioning the issue of transparency, and if all this “truth” is really necessary in my writing.

The issue, of course, is one of courage, not the narrator’s story.  I knew when I began seriously thinking about this memoir that I would use a nom de plume, not because of shame, but because I wanted to create a safety zone.  I am crafting from memory a character, and though her story’s emotional contours and extensive experiences are framed from my history, I barely recognize her as “me.”

Two anecdotes come to mind while I buckle up and address my reservations about self-revelation, as the girl that I once was emerges from the pages.  During my recent writer’s conference, a poet who has recently published a brutally honest memoir stated, “the more specific, the more universal.”  That bit of advice sticks to my skin like something resembling “truth,” a principle irrevocable and inalienable.  Be specific, don’t elide the details to make the story palpable.  Yes, I will be choosing which details to include, to craft a cohesive story, but I must not omit details simply because I don’t like what I see.  Or worse, try to capture her in a way that makes sense, because my choices were chaotic.  At times, there’s no making sense of that person, because there’s no making sense of a soul driven but lost.  Or creative.   Or both.   That’s part of the story.  The good stuff is the stuff that makes me wince, because that’s where something like beauty or transformation or redemption emerge.   And that’s the universal, the material that binds us together.

In Buddhism, “the lotus of enlightenment blooms from the substance of the world.”  The pond in which the lotus blooms is usually the nastiest mire of gunk.  It’s not the fresh water pool of crystalline blue water in which the lotus takes root.  No, it’s all mucky, stagnant, and repugnant.  The lotus takes root in the mire, and that’s why its a symbol for the awakened soul, the one whose roots have gone down into the world, while blooming above it’s waters.

In Christian theology, it’s called “grace,” and understood in more stark terms: the more sin increases, the more grace increases.  I prefer to side with Jesus (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and the Buddhists on sin, rather than Paul.  I think of sin as ignorance, not an abstruse theological truth requiring violence for atonement.  At-one-ment: a recycled label of belief won’t get you there, a shift in consciousness gets you close.

Which brings me to my second anecdote.  I once knew a man who wrote a memoir.  Because he was married and had children, he omitted the experiences that would have created a compelling and powerful story.  He left out all the extra-curricular sex, the buying of it, the affairs, the phone sex, the experiences that men and women need to hear, from a man’s perspective.  He omitted much of what made him human, much of his-story.  I understand why he left these details out, in deference to his family.  But while his sentences were clean and elegant, the story felt disingenuous.  Something was missing.  Actually, a lot was missing.  “The more specific, the more universal.”  The specifics didn’t just fall to the ground, they were ignored.  Yet it was all there, waiting to be told, the roots of his craft begging to take root in his life experiences.

As memoirists, we certainly have no truth telling us how to write, or what we must include.  Life may at times constrain many narrative decisions.  I choose  to write a memoir that doesn’t ignore the muddy waters, to shape my story as it comes to me, no matter how much I dislike looking at who that girl was, because I am a writer.  As memoirists, we don’t just shape stories, we shape ourselves, and our history.  I’m writing my story, and in so doing, owning my life, while creating something that I’d like to call art.  In a story’s specificity, we raise ourselves beyond our personal history, and touch those who may choose to pick up our book, read our blog entry, while we go deeper into our own personal truth, which is the only truth that life gives us.

Dani Shapiro once wrote:  “I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir ‘Slow Motion’ because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir.”

Another friend — a man who taught creative writing, and is a published memoirist — exhorted me at length several years ago about art for art’s sake, when I mentioned the word “redemption” in relation to the craft of memoir writing.  While I value his opinion, I agree with Dani Shapiro.  Life is art, and writing is both life and art.  To arbitrarily create boundaries and insist on something like art only for art’s sake seems to me to smack of another “truth,” as though we’ve got Venn Diagram aesthetics.  “Art and art therefore art” is a valid syllogism; “art and redemption therefore life” is invalid.  Embracing life, art, writing, redemption, and letting go of the labels isn’t just easier, it seems to me closer to the art that humans have enjoyed and shared since we first sat in circles to be entertained: our storytelling ancestors didn’t tell stories in an aesthetic vacuum, they connected us to each other, and the world.  My friend’s position seems to me too dogmatic, too much a construction of the mind, although I admit that I’m probably stretching his meaning a bit to make a point.

In the craft of life, I see no reason not to be artful; in being artful, I see no reason not to redeem my life from its ignorance, while putting metaphorical pen to paper, one day at a time.

I choose to write a narrative that isn’t always pretty, but in owning its muddy waters, I may come closer to a life and craft that serenely float on the world’s waters, while fully rooted in its muck and heartache.

That’s my truth.

 

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Dancing In The Street

(The original version of this was drafted in early March.  There is no longer snow on the ground, and ice skating has given way to bicycle riding.)

All we need is music, sweet music,
There’ll be music everywhere
There’ll be swinging,  swaying, and records playing,
Dancing in the street.  
—  Martha And The Vandellas

“You’ve never heard ‘Dancing In The Street’,” I asked in a lowered voice with feigned seriousness as though everyone in the world knew something that they did not, while looking into the inquisitive eyes of my friends aged four and six.  They became quiet and earnestly shook their heads “no” from side to side.

“Well, we’ll have to change that,” I said with more feigned gravity.

“Meanwhile, let’s pretend like we have music, and let’s go sing and dance in the street.” I smiled at them.  Then, as they’ve come to do often in the days since, they took my hands, a small hand clutched my left fingers, a smaller one curled around my right palm, and they led me outside, while asking me the million-and-one ever so important questions that kids ask.

Sarah, the older sister, Jordan, and I left the village store, and went onto the main road to sing and dance under the summer sun’s retreat.

“What do you want to sing?” I asked them.

“I want Oooga Chaka, Oooga Chaka” Jordan yelled, his hand now freed from mine, arms raised above his head, his face glowing in the thrill of this positively wild adventure of dancing and singing on the village’s main road.

So “Hooked On A Feeling” it was for a few minutes — though I’ve yet to figure out how he knew this one, our exotic musical safari taking place well before the song’s recent resurgence.  We three slipped into random song and dance, led by the two star performers, in the middle of the street, on the outskirts of civilization, and we danced in the street until the sun went down.

“Hey, Lucy, look at us, we’re dancing in the street!” they laughed and shrieked to one of the locals who passed us, on her way home from the library.

“Indeed you are,” she said, somewhat amused, somewhat perplexed, mostly concerned with something more important.

Now, the above may smack of kitsch embellishment, but it’s a real story.  And I believe it’s grounded in a deeper truth than adults allow themselves to live in — similarly, I’ve come to believe that kitsch is undervalued, for related reasons.  In those moments late last summer, Sarah and Jordan became my soul friends, friends who remind me of something that need not change, but we seem bound and determined to let experience devour a precious part of ourselves: creative innocence.  One of my great joys this past year has been Sarah and Jordan ecstatically squealing my name, and then unquestioningly running into my arms during our chance encounters.  For Sarah and Jordan, life is immediate, free, loving, and nearly wholly imaginative.

I made certain that Sarah and Jordan got to sing and dance to Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” more than a handful of times, from late summer into the autumn.  Then one evening, after winter had gripped the air, and several feet of snow covered the ground, I received an email from their mother, Amanda: “Hey, I’m thinking of you.  The kids are running around the house singing their versions of ‘Dancing In The Street.’  Been doing it all evening.”

 

******

Yesterday, I ran into Amanda and Jordan at the library — Sarah was at ice skating lessons.  Jordan saw me, yelled my name, ran to me with his arms wide open, jumped into my arms, laced his legs around me, put his face to mine, puckered his lips, and kept puckering.  There we stood, locked for a minute or so, me kissing his face over and over, especially his puckered lips, him laughing and delighting in my unrestrained affection.

I let Jordan slide down to the ground, so that he could throw himself into the snow bank, before making a few snow balls to toss at me.

“So,” I said to Amanda, ” . . . I  know the kids have birthdays coming up, and I have a couple of ideas that I want you to see.  Not sure if they are age appropriate.  There’s a really cute fire truck made of recycled milk jugs on Amazon, but I don’t know if it’s too young for Jordan.  Can I send you the link?”

“Oh, that’s sounds very cool,” Amanda smiled, “but you don’t have to get them anything.  Just have them over to your house.  Really.  Just have them over.”

I understood that Amanda was being polite.  But later in the evening, I realized that these two friends really do need very little.  Amanda wasn’t being polite, she was being descriptive.  They don’t need anything, other than a friend who sees the world as they do, in all its imaginative glory.  One of their favorite games during the winter was stealing my sweater and playing “catch me” in the store.  Grandparents who give them most everything a child could want, but their favorite toy was my sweater; more precisely, my leniency in letting them steal it over and over and over for “I have your sweater, catch me if you can.”  They pushed those invisible adult boundaries, and I simply played along.  And face painting — using watercolor crayons, we spent an afternoon decorating each others’ faces and hands with fish, rainbows, sunshine, stars, and the indecipherable cryptic ornaments crafted by a four year olds’ fingers.  Or combing my hair.  They both love to have me sit in a chair and then comb my hair, while taking turns rummaging through my purse and pursuing a relentless q-and-a about its contents.

They still live in the powerful land of make believe, where the boundaries between reality and imagination haven’t been corrupted by the socialization of facts.  A tube of gold mascara becomes a magic wand; a Pilates ball becomes a dragon; a living room chair is a fortress; a blue throw rug is a river; a storage closet is a jail cell.  (Jordan is obsessed with putting me in jail for littering, despite my protests that I am innocent and my demands for a trial.)  Everything is easily transformed for them, and I remember how real and vivid imagination is when we’re young: nearly everything possible can be experienced in that unbound terrain.  Little is needed to create a universe — imagination creates the magic entry door, as well as the hills of whatever alternate landscape suits the moment.

There’s so much freedom in a mind that requires little, and demands nothing but its created pleasures.  Let the imagination do its thing, and infinite universes emerge.

It’s tragic that we teach kids to need stuff, when lands and worlds already exist for them, invisible realities of greater depth and breadth than anything we can buy them.

Our most precious gift — our imaginative self — is bartered away for banality: Barbie dolls, G. I. Joes, plastic this, manufactured that, or whatever the consolation prize.  Slowly, we replace creativity with disposable consumer items, television, and computer games.  The imagination isn’t inspired to fill in the gaps with it’s own colors and countries, engage in play that feeds the deepest part of the soul.  Unfettered imaginative play feeds us, because imagination speaks to the self that we’re in the process of unfolding, day by day.  That’s where the magic of creation resides, for the life lived fully.

Ovid claims that “[i]n our play, we reveal what kind of people we are,” and I’ve come to understand this past year how little adults play.  It took me moving from the quintessential land of adults — Cambridge and its oh so important intellectual environs, to see this truth starkly.  Adult play is rarely play — most of the time, it looks to me like a series of numbing diversions incapable of nurturing the inner life, the hungriest part of the imaginative self.  Play and work become all tangled up in a near psychotic mess that tries to pass for play and life, but more closely resembles an unconscious mishmash screaming “help me, I’m trapped, and I don’t know my way out.”

We stuff the fantasy equivalent of Doritos, Diet Pepsi, and McDonald’s burgers into our psyches 24/7, and then scratch our heads at our collective psychic malaise.

But what if we were really to take to the streets in joyful abandon?  What if we really took to the streets, to dance and sing.  Gather with friends in happy impromptu gatherings to make music and dance in the street, just as Martha and Vandella’s sang about decades ago?

We need to take our voices back, with courage and without comparison or criticism.  Imaginative adventures, for the fun of it, insisting that our responsible adult selves take a time out, banish them to the corner for a few hours, and let the inner child rule the roost for a few hours.

I was at a casual dinner party last week, and it took over ten minutes for a group of ten people who knew each other to open up and really let themselves go, to sing to the “Frozen” title track.  Adults, stymied in the privacy of a small group, socialized by years of learning what a dinner party presumably looks like, and apparently firmly convinced about what fun looks like.  Most thought singing to a soundtrack was silly, at first.  Until they reluctantly joined in.  Once they broke free, they actually smiled and laughed and embraced the moment.

The power of freeing the themselves from socialization’s expectations, from the right and the wrong of the way things are, cracked open something deep in this small group.  A small and silly foray made them laugh and experience the moment, lighten up and experience life without judgement.  It was an impressive moment, one that they won’t forget, I suspect.  Small and silly, but powerful and palpable.

There’s a wonderful internet meme that people love posting:  “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”

My guess is that too many posting that meme don’t actually get off the computer, turn up the music, and dance like nobody is watching.  Or better yet, dance in the middle of the street, and not care if anybody is watching.  The joy and the unselfconscious experience of playing like a child dancing in the street under a setting summer sun may be the sanest thing we can do as adults.

 

[http://youtu.be/fHK2lxS5Ivw]

 

[http://youtu.be/87qT5BOl2XU}

 

 

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