Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Of Crashes and Other Inevitabilities

Every cyclist has his time, or her time, if one is to be inclusive in the philosophies of fate. My time came last Sunday as I was descending our lovely Mount Lemmon Highway, or more specifically, the General Hitchcock Sky Island Scenic Byway, after turning around at mile marker 20, or about 8,500 feet above sea level.

I was descending with my companions Roger S. and Kathleen K. when my front tire blew out, suddenly and catastrophically. I “hit the deck,” as they say, going about 30 miles per hour wearing my skimpy Lycra shorts and my only slightly less skimpy bike jersey. These wonderful friends stepped in to take care of details like calling 911, getting my bike down the mountain, notifying family.

The resulting abrasions, contusions, hairline fracture, shoulder separation, and edema continue to remind me that I have lots of nerves in the upper levels of skin, especially on my hip, thigh, elbow, and shoulder.

In the movie Crash, characters collide with each other as a way of connecting. The LA culturescape, diverse as it is, can be a lonely place where people feel isolated, separated from each other, from nature, and from purpose. Characters look for themselves as they bounce, roll, crunch, collide, and eventually shoot their brethren and sisteren.

The phenomenon of crashing serves as reminder of irrefutable connection. Physicists and spiritual teachers tell us that we are all interconnected, whether we recognize it or not. We are all also “activists” in that our behaviors have effects and consequences on the direction of politics, economy, the planet, and, who knows?, overall “vibrations.”

So it was my time to enter a worm hole and meet my fate with the road on Sunday. Going down hard has had a ripple effect on these past few days. For one, it is painful to move, to resist gravity, to put on a shirt, to get into the passenger seat so Megan can drive me to work. Every little chore magnifies the physiological complexity of the body and what it needs to do what is necessary.

This second ripple is a wave of wonder and mystery. The intricate miracle of the body hovers right there on the surface of consciousness. How does it all work? How does a signal from the brain get translated into my hand picking up a spoon? And why does that hurt so much?

Then there is the consciousness of connection. This flicker of consciousness that I call “me” is dependent on the body for its survival. My body is dependent on others for food, for water, for clothes, housing, language, poetry, music, for bicycles and roads.

I have not done it, whatever that "it" might be, "myself." That is an original error, a lesson learned somewhere from a spurious commercial or some demagogue of radical individualism. Some thinkers about this malaise have coined the term "Separation Syndrome," and they see it as the psychological root of apathy, of not caring about anything other that Me-Me. We in the West hold the myth of the lonesome cowboy as sacred, even though it is a fiction, a construction derived from some fantasy of separateness. Thich Nhat Hahn has it correct when he writes that the biggest human lesson is to "overcome the illusion of our separateness."

My usual routine, which is partly an expression of this separateness, has been derailed and complicated by torn ligaments, edema, and stinging road rash. Being able to see it differently, through a lens of connection (and pain) is a gift, even the dull stuff, and sometimes it takes being thrown to the road to see it.Pain, wonder, connection, responsibility all lead to an awakening of peace and gratitude.

Thank you elbow for your insistence that I pay attention to you, and to you hip for sending me notice that scabs are being stretched as I climb the stairs to teach, and to you shoulder, dull throbbing, that reminds me that my job is to begin to answer questions that I have not yet learned to ask, questions about where I end and you, dear world, begin, about how your well-being affects mine, about the friends (and enemies) of truth, and when it is time to change a front tire. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Of Carnality and Spirit

Megan and I had dinner with Fred and his new wife Bev last night at Rosa’s. We sat at a table covered with brightly patterned tiles that caught and reflected the raucous light. Mariachis trumpeted a sad ballad. Mexican calendars for sale on a far wall displayed Aztec warriors on summits of volcanoes standing over virgins while others portrayed saints rising in rapture: some hot with plumes of passion and mango sunset -- others cool, blue, spare, full of ethereal mystery. Sex or purity? Which would I hang on my wall? We talked about how naked the desert feels, how bare, empty -- how cacti have to be spiny and toxic to survive. Then the food came. We ate cheese melted on tortillas, scooped up mounds of Spanish rice, refried beans, greasy chips. Salsa burned. Bev washed it down with a diet soda, Fred a root beer. I swirled the Negra Modelo in the bottom of the bottle, dark as molasses. Fred’s eyes welled when he invoked Donna, his first wife, who died two years ago. Bev held his arm. He said he wanted to see Donna again, and felt that he would. Megan talked about the afterlife as I scraped at melted cheese that felt like it had been welded to the plate and tried to imagine death. I knew Megan would choose the saint to hang above her altar. I put my arm around her and felt my hand pass through her as it would through mist. She talked about the body and the soul and the impermanence of things. I looked at the streaks of gold in her hair, the curve of her neck. I hoped that later we would make love. Fred said time had no beginning and no end, that it was a giant circle. He knew that Donna was somewhere in that circle and that he soon would be there too. He leaned forward on his elbows to make the point. Bev tightened her grip. After flan and coffee we sat back, quiet, satisfied. It was enough. It was all we had. Then Rosa switched off the lights behind the cash register. Tables emptied. Waitresses tallied accounts. Fred thanked us for dinner as I put on the black jacket. The first chill of autumn stood patiently outside, waiting to punch the clock of night.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Narrative as Knowledge

Bold Italic
“The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves determine the quality of the selves we imagine we are. The stories we tell about others determine the quality of our relationships with them.” Rami Shapiro in Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained

Let’s start with a premise: humans see the world through a veil of stories. Stories interconnect with one another to weave a screen through which we filter experience, make judgments, and define ourselves. They contain beliefs, assumptions, values, hopes, fears, desires, and add up to a network of understanding that we use to order reality. In short, stories shape our identities.

These stories explain chaotic jumbles of experience, give context to unfamiliar events, and connect dots that otherwise seem meaningless. Stories order the universe, comfort us, and reassure us. They are also hard to change. A belief will persist long after evidence that proves it wrong has been presented. For example, when asked where the weight of a log originates, graduates of a botany program at MIT often said “the ground” or “water.” In reality they studied how wood resulted from photosynthesis, that cellulose was constructed, or “created,” by energy from the sun. But they “knew,” had a story, or believed, that wood came from water and soil. That made more sense, fit better with early experience and reasoning. The story lived on, in spite of evidence to the contrary. The “real reasons” wood is so heavy came from the stories, not things studied in class.

In the desert, as another example, we act as if water is an inexhaustible resource, even though we know it is not. Our story that technology will support whatever we develop keeps us building beyond what the desert can bear. Most of those who migrated to the desert came from water-rich environments, like the East and Midwest. They “believed” that water will always flow. It’s just a matter of making it happen. Other civilizations have made the same mistake and now speak to us only from ruins.

Stories are a kind of spontaneous human response to things we can’t understand. They are with us and will be always. The job of a reflective writer is to become aware of both personal and social stories, to identify them, to name them, and to evaluate them. Some stories have worn out their usefulness and need to be revised. By becoming aware of them and then reframing them, we can change stories to better fit the problems and challenges we confront.

If we can accept the premise that stories form some of the base of who we think we are, then it follows they are worth examining.

Saying this is much easier than doing it. For one, the stories we live by are buried deep in the mind. We don’t even know they are there. We see only fleeting glimpses of them, the tips of giant ice bergs. For another, we identify with them, and will fight to keep them. They are “right” and we cling to them like life itself. 

Just because we use stories to organize and explain the mysteries of experience does not mean that all stories serve us. Sam Keen writes in his preface to Your Mythic Journey that

"The organizing myth of any culture functions in ways that may be either creative or destructive, healthful or pathological. By providing a world picture and a set of stories that explain why things are as they are, it creates consensus, sanctifies the social order, and gives the individual an authorized map of the path of life. A myth creates the plot-line that organizes the diverse experiences of a person or a community into a single story.

But in the same measure that myth gives us security and identity, it also creates selective blindness, narrowness, and rigidity because it is intrinsically conservative. It encourages us to follow the faith of our fathers, to hold to the time-honored truths, to imitate the way of the heroes, to repeat the formulas and rituals in exactly the same way they were done in the good old days. As long as no radical change is necessary for survival, the status quo remains sacred, the myth and ritual are unquestioned, and the patterns of life, like the seasons of the year, repeat themselves." [xii-xiii]

But there are benefits to doing the work of making our life stories more conscious . The examined life, as Socrates said, is the one worth living. Examining, however is only the first step; the real work comes from evaluating and then revising the stories to better address changing circumstances. If you “author” your own stories, you are not living the stories of others, or the stories you inherited, but are crafting a narrative for the needs of the here and now.
The best stories are told with vivid detail by a trustworthy, believable narrator. They also focus around some idea, or statement. They add up to something because the details, the focus, and the voice of the narrator all work together to move readers or audiences. 

As storytellers, we select details and arrange them for effect. We want out listeners to engage with the telling, to be amused, appalled, sympathetic, or to take our side. In other words, we all compose by selecting evidence, putting a spin on “facts,” and adopting a persona (or voice) to better communicate. 

We tell ourselves stories about who we are as writers, what we can do, (or can’t do), how writing works, what the best ways are to cut corners or to “get by,” or how important writing is to the rest of our lives. 

Improving one’s writing implies making one’s writing stories visible, of looking at them for the myths that are at work, and that form the basis for making decisions about how to compose, revise, research, and edit. If the “stories” about writing are keeping anyone from learning or succeeding as a writer, those stories need to be revised, to be replaced with stories that allow for growth and improvement as a writer. 

I used to believe, for example, that writing depended almost solely on talent. You either had it or you didn’t. This meant that writing was reserved for a privileged few that became Ernest Hemingways or Joan Didions, and that the rest of us were supposed to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the show. 

Long years of experience teaching and writing have shown me that innate talent is wonderful and important, but so is hard work, focus, and time at the desk or in front of the monitor. I have learned that, for me, writing is about showing up and asking the right questions at the right time, of working processes of brainstorming, focusing, organizing, developing, and then tweaking for style, word choice, and tone. My story that writing is about focused effort has resulted in articles, essays, and books being written and published that would not have seen the light of day if I have adhered to the old story that writing was for the talented few. 

All of our stories carry consequences and potential. They can keep our hands tied, lead us into war, or launch us in the direction of our dreams. It’s all about what we need to get where we want to go. The stories we live have to answer questions raised by a changing, dynamic, ongoing, and mysterious puzzle called life.

* The "featherless, storytelling animal" phrase was coined by Sander McNabb.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Few Kind Words for Tedium

It is a Saturday, late afternoon, and I sit with my decompression burrito after the prison writing workshops. I try not to spill salsa on my prison pants. They are the only pants I own that the Arizona Department of Correction’s State Prison, Tucson Complex, will allow inside the yard, through the fence topped with concertina wire, past the drug sniffing dogs. I don’t like them. They are stiff khakis, not my usual blue jeans, not the comfortable cotton of leisure and laid back living of Tucson.

After the grime and cracked plastic, the overuse and overcrowding of the prison, I need to sit and think and make the transition back. It is quiet enough to sit and listen to the inmate’s voices before they get washed away in the incessant noise of streaming entertainment that is part of twenty-first century living.

Those voices fade soon after the bus ride to the gate, the passing through the sally port, the music-filled car commute back into the “free world.” There is so much noise out here that I have to listen hard to remember what they said, how they said it, and let those voices settle into my mind before I can forget them.

There is J., the San Francisco heroin addict who writes sonnets and villanelles, and M. the armed robber making sense out of his gangster past in bilingual free verse, and W. the skinhead and spiritual philosopher who struggles with finding telling details to ground his abstract musings. Each of them has a story, has a voice that rises out of, and recognizes, the disaster of his life.

Many of them write better than my students at the university. Sons and daughters of privilege, the students often can’t find time to read required material, much less expend effort arranging words that will best express a thought.

In the prison, even the tables we use in the writing class have begun to delaminate and the stubs of pencils and cheap pens the inmates use to write infuriate their large hands. The need for finesse plus too much power equals frustration.

I have the rest of the day. Time. The inmates say they have too much time. Maybe that is why the writing is often so good, why the learning curve is so steep, why the improvement can be so dramatic. Boredom, mixed with some fear, violence, and avoiding trouble, to be sure, but boredom and a quiet tedium pervade the place. They have fewer distractions – no cell phones, computers, I pods, very little television. Their lives slow-cook in routine, deprivation.

Tedium, paired with opportunities like the writing workshops, can be the catalyst for writing. Maybe the two together are necessary. When focus and opportunity intersect, a chemical reaction between the two can join hunch with expression. Here is what I see:  if the intention, opportunity, practice, and support are combined with reflection and collaboration even semi literate writers can produce art. A corollary to this is that absorbing work like writing can be an antidote for anxiety, medicine for despair.

Any art requires discipline and surrender. Steady effort, focus, and work, I find, are out of style, and in short supply. I forget that writing requires commitment as well as inspiration. I want to pay attention, have made the choice to attend to the work, but need reminders to do so.

I think about my own opportunities – laptop at the ready, printers, copy machines, projectors, the amount of information at my command on line and in the library – and notice that, rather than write, I opt for email or surfing the web for the best deals on whatever I feel I need at the time. Small talk, consumption, and sound-bites litter my days. I produce little because I am free to be perpetually distracted. I choose it.

Maybe this craving for distraction is a human trait; maybe it is a fatal flaw. Maybe we need to learn to listen again for those voices, that way of thinking that arises from a need to pay attention and to consider ways to say what needs to be said, to solve problems, even if doing so feels slow, a little tedious, and uncomfortable.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Watching Ravens

I pass the sign warning that anyone beyond this point should be prepared to be searched, or, in Spanish, “revisado.” I like that idea better. I should be prepared to be revised. First drafts only up to this point. From here on, you need to focus and figure out what the hell it is you want to say, to do, and to act for a reason. Nobody except students writes for no reason other than his or her own.
The tubs are heavy with writing pads, pens, some magazines, a few books of poetry, copies of inmate drafts that we will discuss. I set the clear tubs down on the steel table so the guard can go through and check for contraband. All of it is contraband, really, but usually the guard just sifts through the pads, shuffles a few pages of the books to make sure they are not hollowed out. He has no interest and likely thinks this stuff is worthless, harmless, and a bit eccentric, if not insane. Why would anyone, including inmates want to sit down and write only to have others critique it? The best outcome is that the work might show up in an obscure journal somewhere, just another crazy poem or story that weirdos would read.
Or at least that’s what I think when I look at his face. I see a faint disgust mixed with bewilderment. Normally, he replaces the lids, and I walk through the metal detector to pick up the tubs on the other side. From here I have only to pass through the sally port and then I am in. I go through this every Saturday, and watch but keep my thoughts to myself. I am lucky and familiar enough that all of this protocol is routine. I see myself on the other side already, under the roof, next to the shoe-shine station, waiting for my ride.
There I will catch a bus and head on over to the Rincon Unit, a two minute ride from the main gate. I will hear the electronic locks snap open, like a bullet being chambered. I will show my badge through the half-inch thick, mirrored security glass and the invisible guard on the other side will open the sliding electric door, clearing my path to the yard and the Education Building.
Musing on my near future, I wait, ready to move the tubs, to feel my fingernails bend under the weight of them. When the guard signals me to lift the lids and stand back, I do, before unloading my pockets of glasses, pen, clip-on badge that allows me clearance, car keys, and any loose change. I am ready to go through the metal detector when he asks me for the memo. I am snapped out of reverie.
“What memo?” I ask.
“Your personal property memo that lists everything you are taking in to the units.”
I don’t have this.
“I have never been asked for a memo before. This is for the creative writing workshops. We’ve been running them for a long time.”
“You can’t take anything in that is not accounted for, and you need to bring it all back out with you.”
“They need paper and pens to write during the week so we can workshop on Saturdays. I have to leave them pads and folders.”
“Nothing is allowed in that doesn’t come back out.”
I think this is some kind of glitch, so ask to see a supervisor. The guard says she will contact the sergeant, before re-entering the control room. She points to a bench that looks like some detention site. This is where the drug sniffing dogs usually wait between checking visitors for drugs.
I wait forty five minutes. The sergeant, a blonde, heavy set woman, emerges from a gray office complex, and walks, with a slight swagger, toward me. I can see a trace of irritation in her face. I explain that the materials are for the writing workshop and that I take them in every week and leave them with the inmates.
“I’m sorry. But you cannot leave anything with the inmates.” She looks at me, but doesn’t look at me, and is reciting policy. It’s her job.
“You can’t go in with anything not on your list. You won’t be able to go in today.”
I can tell she is hoping that I will give up, go back to the car with my tubs, and go home. I decide to bargain, and ask if I can take in a file with copies of a poem by Sandra Alcosser, a poet who is coming in as a guest speaker in a couple of weeks.
“We need to read samples of her work,” I say matter-of-factly. Both of them look at me and each other. I keep going and offer to take the tubs back to the car as a concession, going in with only my fig leaf of a file folder.
They consent. “But only this once,” as a way of winning this battle, of teaching me to submit.
So I take my contraband back to the car, lock it up, and return for my revision. I pass through the metal detector and the electric doors of the sally port and enter the yard. I will have to figure this one out.
I count thirty-two ravens in a cottonwood tree over the DA, the Dining Area, as I walk from the gate to the Education Building in the Rincon Unit. Ravens whistle above me as they negotiate the gusty breezes. They seem to like the razor wire and the dead trees, the military lettering of the buildings – HU5 – the strafed austerity of the recreation area. I like them. They mock us humans and our folly even as they benefit from our trash and discards. They are not proud and take none of this seriously. OK, I say to myself, so that’s the way it is. Fly high enough not to get caught and keep your eyes on the cottonwood. If you’re lucky, no one will shoot you down.

Prison Writing Workshop
Eleven ravens roost
in a winter cottonwood
wind slices through
my jacket as the lock
snaps shut
fingers strain at the weight
of papers and books
and pens and notepads
and other dangerous characters
as a man lights his cigarette
on an electrical coil
wired to a steel post
a bare grey stump
bleaches in the sun
mute now
no breeze can stir the leaves
it used to offer as shade
and here in this
clear unforgiving
no one
can hide or run
but a man can refuse
square one of
a new year
a blank page waits
for the story
that will mark the passing
of steps in hopeless time
snow shimmers on the mountain
far beyond the confining wire
one by one the ravens
lift into the wind and are carried
on the words
thrown down like dice
in this the last and
only chance to
harvest new truths
born of an
impossible heart.