Summer of 2015: Bread Loaf School of English

Is there anything sweeter than June?

Of course there is. It is July and August! It is an entire summer dedicated to reading, writing, and being in a place where the exploring has no end.

Greetings from New Mexico!

 

In September of 2014 I sent an email to those subscribed in which I shared my extensive research related to MFA and Phd. programs and my reasons for not wanting to attend either. However, I mentioned that I was quite taken by Middlebury College’s graduate school, Bread Loaf School of English, for a variety of reasons, reasons that I didn’t share.

I didn’t think–didn’t have time to think–about any of it becoming a reality until February of 2015. Looking back on it, September of 2014 till February of 2015 is hardly any time in between but because of so much that happened in that short amount of time, it feels like lifetimes. In March of this year I had a very honest  exchange with the admissions director: I was not some teacher confused about what I “really wanted to do” when I grew up; I was extremely picky about workshops and such, having attended only two to date (one in Prague in 2011 before Auguries and one in March of this year hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in Big Sur); and my definition of “community” was very old school, basically sans the digital static; and the idea of more debt for yet another degree wasn’t exactly exciting. I was so taken aback by her patience, kindness, and sincerity regarding all my concerns, that I decided it was worth applying with all my  heart. Where there was one real human being there had to be others, right?

I began my personal statement essay with: “Are you a writer who teaches? Or are you a teacher who writes?”

I ended that essay as follows:

In February of this year I had the opportunity to present my work of last two years with my phenomenal students in a rural community in California at the CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) conference in San Jose. On the final day of that conference we were given a long quote by John Steinbeck, part of which I share now, the part that answered my question.

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

It is my hope that during each summer of attending Bread Loaf I will find a community of avid readers and learners, which will make me a better writer. My experience at Bread Loaf will be one of joy and it will help me be of service to my students. It would also provide for a shared reading experience that I would cherish beyond any classroom.

Essentially, if I was going to go back to graduate studies, I wanted the cake and I wanted to eat it too and that too without calories!

Ask and receive.

So, here I am. Very grateful for this opportunity to become a better writer by having a shared reading experience.

 

In other news, Vusi and I are almost done with www.realthinkingtree.com (it will be live in a few days! It’s has been a huge learning curve for me to create a digital platform like this and I couldn’t have done it without Vusi). I created it to share my reading and writing strategies with parents and educators as I continue to grow in this profession. I feel it is imminent that educators across the United States (and the world) utilize the Internet to share what they are doing (or what they are unable to do, even if anonymously) to help one another given what’s at stake here, the future. Here is an excellent post on the demise of the artist-teacher.  What makes www.realthinkingtree.com unique is that it is also a safe platform for students–from anywhere–to connect with each other (and with me) about their thoughts on reading, writing, and learning because students’ voices are missing from the learning conversation.  In order to make that possible, we had to review COPPA, a federal law that regulates activities of users under 13. COPPA requires parental consent before signing up on sites “that may attract children under 13”. In the past I have only worked with older students, but while I was living in California I had the unique opportunity to work with an amazing group of 5th graders. They will now be in 7th grade and in case they find me (many have!) and want to sign up I had to ensure it was done properly. What’s interesting is that both Fakebook and Twitter are able to bypass COPPA by stating that they are not platforms which attract children under 13. I wish that was true! More importantly, I wish there was better enforcement of these regulations given the dangers of younger folks signing up on social sites.

 

Finally, here is the podcast interview with Jessican Ann Media where I talk about writing, auguries, yoga, community etc. I have received some wonderful feedback about it and I am grateful for the opportunity.

 

Bread Loaf.

I am enrolled in two courses for this summer. The first course is “Nuclear Southwest: Literature and Film” and is taught by Jesse Aleman. I have been reading this assigned link as a warm-up to the background on the Atomic Bomb. The “interdisciplinary course examines the literary and cultural fallout of the atomic Southwest—a constellation of texts, images, and film that confront the nuclear era with protest, critique, fear, survival, and humor.” Last night I watched two assigned films, one of them was Trinity and Beyond (available on Hulu ) and the other was The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project (available on YouTube). Both films show the uncertain days of the beginning of World War II when it was feared the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb and the migration of a group of nuclear scientists to Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was detonated. I am very lucky that my in-laws, both in their 70s, are actually from New Mexico and have seen many parts of the state, including the changes to their hometown Santa Fe, which provides for another rare perspective not offered in a textbook or documentary film.

The second one is “Indigenous American Literature” and is taught by Simon J. Ortiz! I was first introduced to such literature by Prof. Bud Hirsch at University of Kansas. I have written–not as well as I can now– about that much younger self here (the shorter version, our first conversation) and here (the longer version, our last conversation before Prof. Hirsch died too soon). Reading these two older posts about an even younger time in my life brought tears of joy. I wish I could tell Bud that I am enrolled at Bread Loaf and I will be taking a class where we begin the session by reading the exact same book which I read with him, Ceremony by Leslie Mormon Silko. Silko is originally from Albuquerque and among many other well-deserved acclaims also  “self-published her multi-genre book Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) under her own imprint (Flood Plain Press).”

Moreover, I wish I could tell him that his letter of recommendation didn’t just land me in law school, but because of that experience I met another great professor who became a wonderful mentor and remains a dear friend. That I had a lot of questions after his death but now I know I was never lost and he always knew that. Most importantly, I wish he could have met Jamie, my best friend, the love of all my lives, and I could tell him I finally “get” what he meant by a “love that just doesn’t quit, no matter what life throws at us, a love where you are in love always.”

His loss doesn’t make me sad like it once did. If anything, it confirms that there are no mistakes, and there is indeed some invisible trajectory following commands, whispers from our deepest chambers, that we can’t always hear.

So, I will be reporting from “The Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, this summer. That is, when I am not reading and writing!

I am re-reading Fahrenheit 451 and other Bradbury stories again because I plan on teaching them. Re-reading Ceremony after over a decade. The rest of these are not Bread Loaf readings but my own! Hope I can do it! I am almost done with the Stinging Fly issue and it is fantastic.

no filter

Sometimes we need a filter to see and feel clearly. Other times, we can only see clearly without one.

I have spent most of the day this Sunday reading the  Winter 2014-15 issue of The Stinging Fly. If you are on Twitter, find them, follow them. Or better yet, check them out and subscribe! I discovered this magazine a few weeks ago and felt it might be something I would have to sit down to really read, Internet browsing wouldn’t suffice.

As most of you already know, there aren’t many magazines out there I have mentioned since the writing doesn’t really move me. It all feels stale. I stopped reading The New Yorker 8 years ago, not as a boycott but because I just gave up. Whenever I could browse online, I did, and sometimes I would find nonfiction gems but fiction didn’t impress. Other magazines that offer new writing by new writers disappointed too. Everyone in these “alternative” magazines trying so hard to be different that they forget the object was to write a story, a good story, not be different.

Not this. The writing in The Stinging Fly is so alive you could feel the stories moving without even opening the first page. The essay, the poetry, the reviews, the fiction, just all of it. I am inspired, I am moved, I feel hopeful. Art is not dead. Honestly, I don’t think I can articulately review any of the pieces in it, I am too stirred with joy upon this discovery. The writing is fresh, the perspectives unique, and it made me realize how it is our obligation to protect what is unique in one another. Moreover, having checked out the website of Deborah Rose Reeves and a few others who are published in this issue, I can toast to what Jamie is always saying, “You can’t encounter the richness of life if you never live it.” And if you never live it, you can’t really write it, create it.

I have never felt this more profoundly than I do today, of all the reasons that exist to create Art, the quintessential is to move us to a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world around us, and if Art can’t achieve that, at the very least it ought to give us a confirmation, more than mere hope, for an alternative. For some of us, those of us, whose standards are not aligned with that of the general public, that hope is not as readily available. But when it comes, it illuminates everything so clearly, that even the shadows become beautiful.

light

 

Still Sundays: Ghosts of Elsewhere

October 12, 2014

 

I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.

I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.

I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.

I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.

“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”

That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.

The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.

 

Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).

 

But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano.  Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”

What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.

 

Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.

“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)

 

Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.

attention to details: a way of being

September 7, 2014.

 

The article in The New Yorker, “Creativity Creep” by Joshua Rothman, is probably one of the most succinct and apt essays I have read on creativity since the dawn of social media and the rise of “creativity” as a “job”.  Maybe there is hope after all if The New Yorker is willing to publish such an essay. There is always hope, I suppose. 

Mr. Rothman writes:

People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates […]  like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life. In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes this kind of imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates.”

This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”

How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing?

[…]

It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind.

[…]

Among the many things we lost when we abandoned the Romantic idea of creativity, the most valuable may have been the idea of creativity’s stillness. If you’re really creative, really imaginative, you don’t have to make things. You just have to live, observe, think, and feel.

 

This is what I have been doing in this space every Sunday, testing my “human reflex”, sometimes willingly and other times questioning that same reflex. Moreover, my recent work,  has taken me to experience depths of living, observing, breathing, feeling “creativity” in ways I can only hope to one day articulate in some tangible medium. And finally, since the advent of social media, people are of two views when it comes to absence from “blogging” or “sharing”: either one is living such an amazing life that there is no time to share photos or thoughts or alternatively, that an individual’s life must be so distressful that it doesn’t merit sharing. Of course, my point is about when people don’t share as much as they once did or at all, not those who report, the good or the challenging, for a sake of community and sharing, however regularly and openly.

Life is just life, it goes on. Yes, it’s sweeter when shared by those who “get it” but when one is truly original, majority of the people don’t “get it”.   At first.

 

Another article, also about creativity, was featured in ars technica and titled  “Is there a creativity deficit in science? If so, the current funding system shares much of the blame” by Ben McNeil.

Ben McNeil offers a notable quote by John Ioannidis who is head of the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California and links the quote to other sources.

“A truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers: if it is truly innovative, no peer has any clue about it; if peers already know about it, it is not innovative” said John Ioannidis, head of the Stanford Prevention Research Centre in California. Ioannidis and others published a recent analysis called “Conform and be Funded where they show that safer, established ideas have a much better chance of being funded at the NIH than novel, creative ones.

To be fair, the bias against any risk is not limited to the NIH; it occurs across every governmental science agency globally.

 

I also found the following a bit unsettling:

In the early 1970s, Roger Kornberg, a 27-year-old Stanford PhD, was working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. With a modest post-doctoral salary, Kornberg was given freedom to explore untried and risky areas of research. This would ultimately allow him to make a revolutionary discovery about how DNA is copied in cells.

Kornberg would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2006 for that work. Yet he told The Washington Post that he’s convinced his groundbreaking Nobel Prize winning idea would never have been funded today.

 

 

An unrelated short piece by William Childress titled “A Born Writer” in the most recent print issue of Writer’s Digest brought it all together for me in the form of a question that perhaps doesn’t have an answer.  A side note I must mention:  I have never had much interest in that magazine because the online version, with all the links and ads, has always felt manic to stay the least; however, I recently subscribed to print thanks to coming across a print copy at a book store which I found useful. Anyway, in the piece Childress writes, “…comments by Mom, friends or kin were useless. In their eyes, I was a success simply by putting words on paper. But they signed no checks. Editors are a writer’s link to reality. They know when they must tell a writer no–and they will. But sometimes I get lucky and hit the mark, and they say, ‘Thank you. This is exactly what we need.’ Then I try again, and again, and again…”

 

I reflected a lot about this “trying again and again” and the statement from the other article, “a truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers”.

My primary reason for not having tried again and again (or just barely) is twofold: lack of time and that a part of me is quite  satisfied with the audience I have (not to mention grateful!) and whenever I sit to write my objective is to deliver a valuable story where the words are crafted with hallmark care and whatever happens after that fades into the background. That being said, if I want signed checks, I have to try, at least once, twice, or thrice and do so beyond here.

What I know now without a doubt, thanks to the perfect articulation by Joshua Rothman, is that this space has been and will continue to be about sharing a way of being that is me, a way which also happens to be creative. This is also true for a lot of others who blog and share some phenomenal photos, words, and art. This is also true for many who don’t. Some of the most creative people I know, artists and otherwise, are not available via social media platforms. However, it is my hope, that a new consciousness within social media is emerging, where we are able to distinguish our inherently creative natures from creating meaningful Art “that changes everything it illuminates”.  Stories are more than ideas and art is more than being creative. And while both kinds of creativity have their place, it would serve us all to approach each with more mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a job description or a test of creativity, it is a way of being.

 

 

branches

 

“seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout” ~ E.B. White

Still Sundays.

 

September 1, 2014.

 

It isn’t September quite yet but I would like to think I can see around the corner. When I sit to type, the letters on the keyboard feel like the keys of a piano: you don’t forget to play, even if you can’t play as well due to being out of practice. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a song, but there is music.

You don’t just want to make noise with an instrument.

If I decide to write as I listen to music then it all comes together without effort. My fingers take a life of their own. I like to see parts of the body rise to their own wisdom, beyond the one my mind has set aside. This used to happen with more ease due to a consistent yoga practice which now is  down to only twice a week but that’s only for now. Now is so many months sometimes. But months pass.

I would like to invite my disbelief to have a seat at the Table of Questions and digest, without the Fork of Answers, how 2014 will be over in 4 months. What a tricky two years it has been!

If two years ago, on September 2, 2012 when I flew on a one-way ticket to California, someone had told me that I would be in California for two years, I would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of that statement. When I left my home in New York I knew I would be away from New York City indefinitely, dabbling in visits as frequently as possible, but I didn’t anticipate being in California this long.

How I feel now, as compared to when I first moved here and stopped writing about California altogether so as not to turn this space into a can where one spits the day like chew, can very easily be summed up in the words of John Steinbeck from his 1953 essay, “The Making of a New Yorker” in the New York Times.

“New York City is the only city I have ever lived in. I have lived in the country, in the small town, and in New York. It is true I have had apartments in San Francisco, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Paris, and have sometimes stayed for months, but that is a very different thing. As far as homes go, there is only a small California town and New York. This is a matter of feeling.”

However, it is important to keep the context of his words in mind. One can tirelessly go on about why people move to New York City and why they end up leaving or whether they should. Steinbeck left because he couldn’t write there given the circumstances, not just because the City is demanding, to say the least, for any individual of average means. Those who have “average” means sacrifice plenty—space to personal relationships sometimes—so as to be “in the City.”

NY in Paris

Paris, 2014.

 

 

Looking back on the last two years, regardless of the toll on my personal health and writing, I have gained more than I have lost. Moreover, these past two years will probably be instrumental for the next phase of my writing. I can understand that now even if I can’t yet articulate it. And finally, it has given me a new sense of compassion for wherever people are and will remain.

One of the most important lessons I have gained by living here is by observing how one becomes “old”.  Old with anger. Old with a stubborn disposition. Old with holding on to the past. Old with flipping through old memories as if they are the now. Old with life. Old with a spirit that can neatly fit inside a shoe box made of explanations that make sense. Old because your happiness depends on your spouse. Old because your happiness depends on your children. Old because. Some old “because”. Old. Just old.

I feel as if Life has most of us categorized in three groups: 1) those who don’t know there is a rug yet; 2) those who are stumbling trying to hold onto the rug; 3) those who can see themselves, their place in the world, and the world at large when the rug gets pulled and it feels like they are falling.

The rug is our construct of who we think we are based on everything outside of ourselves. The yarns in the rug consist of our relating to where we live, what we do, and all our notions, some real and some not so real, about who we are.

I admire the people who appear forever young, content, satisfied, filled with joy, pursuing life sometimes like lightening and other times like a lightening bug.  These people don’t always appear to have it “figured out”  or whatever version of fill-in-the-blank success, but they are the ones who have learned to dance in the air, again and again, without that rug. Perhaps the rug is a necessary element to float through time and space in order to have this human experience, but I now understand why the rug gets pulled from under our feet. And you probably do too.

In this regard, the antidote to “getting old” is to really live, which sometimes means staring at yourself after the rug, made of your construct of an image of yourself, is pulled under you. It also means choosing new adventures and seeing the pit stops as adventures too. Most importantly, if in any shape or form your compassion has served others without the residue of self-indulgence, then you shall remain forever in sync with life’s cycles which aren’t necessarily determined by your planning nor the chronological years that pass too quickly and therefore will never feel “old”.

Reading this article, “Where are they now? The Kings of the 90’s Dot-Com Bubble”  made me reflect what had these people really contributed to humanity. Yes, they made money, but other than Jeff Bezos (and the jury is still out on him), does anyone even recall who they are and what they did? And I thought about  this not within the framework that if one has money then he or she ought to be a celebrity too, but in quite a literal sense. Often people with this kind of “lucky” wealth have an image of “serving others” but they lack a real vision and seldom are those visions altruistic.  I find this quite distressful and it can all be very overwhelming.

But there is hope. There is always hope.

I happened to pick a print copy of the most recent Reader’s Digest issue and it took me back to the time when one could indeed trust an editor to curate the best articles, without having to read through people’s sloppy comments, “likes”, and all sorts of unnecessary noise that we now encounter while reading online; back to a time when you would cut and save an article because it was so good; back to a time when articles from the past remained forever connected to articles in the present, alongside “Life in the United States” and “All in a Day’s Work”.  This recent issue reprinted (of course available online too) a response by E.B. White  to a letter he received predicting a grim future for humanity. The letter, written in 1973, begins, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.” Then it continues,

“It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably  harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.”

That was in 1973. I don’t know what E.B. White would have to say now. I do know what I have to say. The conditions are always right to allow the “seeds of goodness” to sprout.

“a special state of mind” ~ Marquez

It was during my first trip to Europe, a year before graduation from undergraduate studies at University of Kansas, a year before “September 11” would change travel, when I was first introduced to the works of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel was Love in the Time of Cholera and the time was a train. My friend Dawn who gave me the book before my first trip hopping European cities on trains had said, “You need this.”

I was young and like most, not all, young people I was in love with the idea of love which meant I was more interested in looking than finding and my melancholy stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know the difference. It was a rebellious trip in every which way possible and it would begin a series of events that eventually led to a rebellion with one’s worst nemesis, oneself.

I wasn’t very far into the book when I knew this was no ordinary writer and this was not just a love story. The last time I had been this moved by the writing itself, beyond the story, was when I had read The Great Gatsby on my own, long before it would become assigned reading in high school. I knew without having read any reviews or commentary that I was reading craftsmanship in the ranks of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner etc.

Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure—long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they were. Even at the age of seventy-two. 

(Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. p. 25-26, New York:  Knopf, 1988. Print.).

I was on one of the many train rides and felt this strange, fierce urge within to feel what it would feel like to write those sentences. So, I asked for a bunch of napkins from the little restaurant area in the train and started writing the aforementioned passage over and over again. I knew in the next city I would have to find a journal—I didn’t even have a journal, can you imagine?! But until then I wrote and rewrote those sentences until I felt full. The kind of full one feels after over-eating on a holiday dinner. Then on a different train I experienced another urge: what if I tried to describe people I saw on the trains the way he had? The way in describing how a man touched his eyelashes could offer your a glimpse of Italy’s history? What if…and what if… So I described people as if an artist might have attempted to jot a quick line sketch.

After the trip, upon my return to the United States, with one year still left at the university, becoming any kind of writer wasn’t even in the periphery of my imaginings. I was obsessed with international relations and took as many political science and history courses as possible. Then “September 11” happened. As if I wasn’t already about to burst in half doing splits between two cultures, now I had to redefine myself as the world changed definitions every other month. It was a very chaotic time and I wanted nothing more than to  start my life in the very city where the acts of terrorism took place. And a year later that is exactly what I did. Everything aligned perfectly—beyond human planning—for me to begin my life in New York City. Between the time of graduating and starting my life and work in New York City I read everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I could get my hands on. The only thing I still haven’t finished reading is the novel which would finally bring Marquez international notoriety: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am not sure why this is given I have read even the most obscure of his collections, essays and other novellas. Perhaps now is as good a time as any.

What Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave me is what Franz Kafka gave him:

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

(Stone, Peter H. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art of Fiction No. 69.” The Paris Review. The Paris Review Mag., Winter. 1981. Web. 2014).

I could write a love story and have it be a report on a country, culture and history! I could tell a political story about love and I didn’t have to fit myself in a niche of a culture that matched my skin color or the color of my passport! Of course I didn’t think of all these things the instant I read his words. That would be a slow coming together. As all of you following this journey since 2010 already know.

A year away from becoming a Nobel laureate and before the publication of the English translation of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, Marquez ends the 1981 Paris Review interview by stating:

I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when. When I feel something like this—which I have been feeling now for a while—I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it.

 

In 2009 when I began writing to share my encounters with my friends (which eventually led to this blog in 2010) it was because of Marquez’s Leaf Storm which he wrote for his friends who had been his biggest supporters long before anyone knew of his work. I created this space so my closest friends and lovers of stories and words could stand witness to the trial of fragments where sometimes I am the judge and other times the advocate and yet other times a mere stenographer.  And the year 2009 began long before 2009. Somewhere in Paris that summer when I finished Love in the Time of Cholera I sat in a typical internet cafe staring at the email I had crafted to my recipients. I counted the number of people to which the email was going. When I had begun that trip I was writing an email update of my travels to every person I knew whose email address I had. Three months later I was only emailing a handful of friends.  I mean the others had done nothing wrong but I felt they couldn’t relate or understand or appreciate my urgency—literal, acute, grave compulsion—to share those reports of my travels. I didn’t know then that there was a writer in me whose primary task was to ensure I was always in the company of those who could see that writer even though this other me would have laughed at the idea of writing a book, a blog, a thought.

I am grateful for each and every person who has served as a baluster in this journey, this “special state of mind.”

-a.q.s.

 

10 reasons why I would rather teach writing to 10-year-olds than adults

For the past seven months I have been working with a group of 10-year-olds. More specifically, working on their writing skills. Other than teaching distinctions between various homophones and homographs (their, there, they’re; fair, fair, fair) I have not emphasized “correct” spelling. I know from many experiences, personal and in the field of education, that spelling comes with practice and reading, lots and lots of reading. The only real challenge I have encountered is teaching complete sentences versus fragments. This is quite difficult to get across because when they read fiction they come across fragments upon fragments authors write for “voice” or within dialogue or to serve other literary and figurative purposes. To this end, I decided why conclude that these young writers “wouldn’t—couldn’t—get” author’s craft nuances and instead to teach writing like in any traditional creative writing program for adults.

Also, I have never worked with such a young age group. Before law, I taught middle and high school. There would always be a handful of students in that age group who didn’t hate writing but most of them preferred to plagiarize or figure out a way to still pass the class without turning in any writing related assignments.  The spelling was atrocious and the content dry. I have also taught students in community colleges and those trying to get their G.E.D. diploma and it felt that the students’ relationship to writing got worse as they grew up. There were always a few each year who ‘liked’ writing but only if it was creative writing; any responses to literature or short essays were drier than empty tin cans. They  had been taught that writing was for writers/creatives and if you weren’t aspiring to be a song-writer or an author then there was no use for writing except to pass the class as a requirement.

This opportunity feels like the grandest opportunity: a window into the future, or the missing link from the future.   I have even considered a P.h.D around this topic: what happens when adults get out of the way?! Whatever else they may have learned from me, I can assure you I have never been more inspired. This Sunday I felt like sharing what I have learned from them. Anything in quotes is a direct quote by several 10-year-olds.

Here are 10 reasons why I would rather teach writing to 10-year-olds than adults:

1. You don’t have to convince them that they are creative. They are only certain about one thing: they have many ideas, thoughts, questions, and experiences. They are 10 and they know this with conviction!

2. You don’t have to convince them about “good writing.” They know that sharing a piece of writing must meet certain standards. The two most important rules that they came up with: “make it not boring” and “don’t just talk about yourself.”  They intuitively  know that “some pieces of writing are just for yourself and that is okay not to share. Your writing still matters because it is yours.”

3. You don’t have to hear about social media. They don’t care about social media. Don’t confuse this with their lack of knowledge about Twitter, Fakebook, Instagram, Vine etc. Most of them do have digital devices and some even have accounts! They just use them like text-messaging tools to share “selfies” and fart jokes or about what they are reading, no different than adults I suppose. However, an important distinction is, they don’t seek them as a source for inspiration for anything and they are definitely not as plugged in as the “millennials”. In another 10 years these children will be 20 and already have a very different take on technology.  Most of them can’t understand the adult obsession, they would rather play and hang-out in real time. They do have tablets for reading but equally prefer books. Most of them see tablets as game boards. “They are not a book! That’s just silly!” So, naturally, they don’t care to share their writing beyond their immediate audience or to know if anyone else likes it. That being said, they are very driven to improve their writing because “no one likes cliches because that’s boring and tiring”.

4. You don’t have to sell them the reasons for editing and revising. They like editing and revising. They know that when we are eager to write our initial thoughts or creative stories we sometimes overlook silly mistakes. It’s “fun to make it better because you grow each time you fix a mistake.” They know they are not perfect because no one is. They are focused solely on their own work but in a different way than most self-absorbed adults: they want to improve for the sake of improving and having their thoughts be more accessible.

5. They think writing is cool because you get to share stories, make up stories, use figurative language like “play-doh”.  “Most author’s craft is really just play-doh: why would you make something that somebody else is making? Unless it was really really cool. You can’t make mistakes with play-doh.” Their use of figurative language is mind-blowing. “It’s easy when you write from the heart and push yourself to find new ways of saying how you feel.”

7. They are not afraid to explore. Even the shy ones. They don’t need permission to cry or think they need self-help for crying. Some of them have burst into tears during their writing. “I didn’t even know there was that feeling in me!” Some of them don’t cry until they share their writing out loud. They love humor too and enjoy making up stories about one another and writing in third person. They are not interested in my “approval”. They help each other and are willing to receive and reject help. They emulate one another and authors and then grow out of it. They don’t want to be the best, they want the writing to be the best for that moment.

8. They don’t need a reason to break rules. “I wanted to try something new” suffices. “I didn’t have more to say” for a shorter writer’s notebook entry is an okay response. The five-paragraph essay doesn’t have to be boring if you care about what you are writing. “Don’t you want to convince someone of something when you sit down to write?”

 

 

On that note, I thought I was going to have 10 reasons, but 8 good ones are better than 2 extra useless ones.  “It’s okay to start with one thing in mind and then end up with another. That’s why it’s called a journey, right?”

I wish I could take credit for all of it. I am just a facilitator and here and now share my own writings and feelings with them. It’s all been an organic unfolding, truly an orchestration beyond my teaching abilities. That being said, Peter Elbow is a big influence and I incorporate a lot of his methodologies and philosophies.

On a personal note, these youngsters have really convinced me to write a young-adult or children’s book.

As they would say: why not? 🙂

“Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking. Meaning is not what you start out with but what you end up with.” – Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers.


“Who I am is who I could not not be.” ~ Peter Senge

A month ago, on our way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, while driving through beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, I stumbled upon a used bookstore, Starrlight Books. This happened only because my internal GPS—“Gastronomy Paging System”—that doesn’t need external maps, directed me to a spot called Alpine Pizza where I had the best pizza outside of New York City.

I picked up a used copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s collected poetry at this quaint bookstore.

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And we stumbled upon this wall across the bookstore, near where we had parked. How we miss things the first time around because we are too hungry to see!

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Buddha in Glory

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

Sometimes I reflect on how did I ever manage to write so much here? Not just that, but get to that space where I was just writing stories day and night which resulted in an edited collection that is now being shared by word of mouth!

2014: Sublime Flux

I wish Isaac Asimov were still alive.  He is not but I am.

He predicted robots and computers in 2014. I predict we won’t even be able to decipher humans from robots by the end of 2020 if we continue to teach according to the current education “reform” movement.

I have a favorite gift from the holidays. I was given this very comfortable sweatshirt that says the following in the front: “Those who can, TEACH. Those who can’t, pass laws about education.”

I will wear it on those days I think I can do more with my law degree.

 

I saw the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Besides the blatant advertising throughout the movie, I enjoyed it very much. I wish Roger Ebert were still alive. I wanted to read his take on the movie, to give us more than the movie ever intended and the movie would be even better for it.  I wonder what he would have written about the scene when the photographer, character played by Sean Penn, says to Walter Mitty, something along the lines, If I really like a moment, I won’t capture it.

How many photos of our sky, our food, and our selves can we take?

I feel like the advent of social media was a bad prank by bored kids (which it was) and despite resisting Fakebook, I fell for the rest of it. I feel dirty. I just want to hit refresh, restart, and delete everything. Most of the articles I read online all sound as if the writers/bloggers are working in the same room with the same words and the their brains are networked to think alike. Every “alternative” opinion is in reference to something in the vacuum of the Internet at large. I have renewed my subscriptions to several magazines.  Hopefully, people will catch on by 2016.

 

I read an article in The Atlantic titled “Make Time for Awe.” I don’t really remember the content. No awe in that. I predict I will read a 100 more such articles before the year is over.

If you have to “make” time for awe then the awe train swished by you. When I have been awed I have pulled over on the side of the road, I have reached out to a complete stranger without thinking twice about it, I have grabbed my phone to call someone and tell him or her to “watch/read/see this now!”  Maybe now our threshold of awe requires more thanks to immunity developed through various digital vitamins, so not much awes us like it once did and we must indeed make time for it.

Usually when my core spins in awe, I have not been able to “do” or “say” anything: no words, no sharing, nothing. Just a big, silent mouth created with the crayon of my imagination that gets filed inside the unorganized library of humility.

 

2010 is when I began writing and sharing here quite regularly. Here is my reflection of the year 2009.  What can I say that hasn’t already been said? 2013 felt like a boxing match. Is it still winning if you are smiling, holding your hands up high inside the boxing gloves, with all teeth missing?

I had three weeks of vacation. Yes, it’s true. In this day and age, solid three weeks of lots of jolly-nothing. It was one of the best vacations I have had and most wonderful time with family. These three weeks, which are almost over, were earned after NINE months of working 12-hour days, 6 days a week. Everyone tells me this is just how it is. I continue to refuse to believe that. I will carve another way.

 

The other night I had a dream I was sitting on a wall like Humpty Dumpty except I had a less oval shape and my legs could touch the ground. I wore an ugly crown,  made of cardboard, which didn’t fit me quite right, that had written on it, “Literary Dumpling.” I know this dream was weaved after having had a conversation earlier that day where I had retorted, “And how exactly does one go about becoming a ‘literary darling’?” and then I had added, “I never hated the word darling more than when placed next to the word ‘literary’.”

Words can be so disappointing.

So, in my dream, I thought dumpling meant fat and I didn’t want to gather “high literary cholesterol” and I was trying to take that crown off of myself and make myself fall like humpty dumpty so I would wake up or at least break the crown but I couldn’t fall because my feet touched the ground.

I woke up thinking: why can’t I fall when I can put myself together again?!

 

2009 marked a year of losses.

And beginnings.

Small ones.

 

2013 marked a year of challenges.

And opportunities.

Small ones.

 

I don’t really know what to say about 2013 other than the fact that I had only one goal and it was to make my collection of stories available for purchase. It is said to define what constitutes as success as early as possible at the onset of any project. I succeeded: you can now even buy it on Amazon. Considering everything that stood in the way, I will recall 2013 as having triumphed despite it all. The cherry limeade at the end of the boxing match is this review by Lucy Pollard-Gott. I have received two wonderful emails about this review and I am so grateful for her finely crafted thoughts and inviting new readers’ energies that reverberated because of it. I couldn’t ask for more.

Except…

That collection happened because I did nothing but write for two years, which would not have been possible without my family’s support, akin to folks who go get an MFA or writing residency. 2013 taught me that I have absolutely no idea how to carve time for writing— which is a full time discipline, there existed a method despite my wildly random days— and working in a very demanding education sector that I left once upon a time because it felt counter-productive to actually educating.

The psychologist Edward B. Titchener in his book 1928 A Textbook of Psychology, explained déjà vu as caused by a person having a brief glimpse of an object or situation, before the brain has completed “constructing” a full conscious perception of the experience. Such a “partial perception” then results in a false sense of familiarity.

Here is to hoping 2014 is actually new, not some counterfeit version of years gone by. And if it is going to be as challenging—which is fine, for such is the nature of life—-I would like to be navigating unfamiliar terrain so it transforms into an adventure instead of a boxing match.

I leave you with John Steinbeck’s words from East of Eden: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

I am excited about embracing and being simply good.

Lessons from a Chinese Lantern

A few weeks ago my mother and I attended a yoga restorative workshop. The woman who put it together is named Francine and in her other life she must have been a human being because in this life she is definitely some angel. It was no ordinary restorative workshop. A year ago Francine began a tradition where she, with the help of her very extra-Greek parents, offers a multiple-course, traditional, home-cooked Greek meal, prepared with imported oils and ingredients from her hometown in Crete. After dessert she shows all the participants how to light a paper lantern, also known as a “Chinese Lantern”, and send wishes up to the sky. Later, I inquired about the history of Chinese Lanterns with a close friend in New York City, who happens to also be Chinese-American, she said she didn’t have any personal knowledge about them “but that depends on which part of China one is from.” Of course she was familiar with the decorative lanterns that are now common place but nothing more.

Regardless, that night, it was all new for me and I was like a kid inside some story that I wish I had written but instead, equally as well, I was living it.

My mother and I were both quite excited. Lighting the paper lantern is a two person endeavor; naturally, my mother and I partnered up. This also meant that in the moment of actually doing it, we couldn’t take photos or videos. Of course, we could ask others, as we did do, and once the lantern was finally lit up, we were able to snap a photo or two, but these were mostly blurry and sloppy since if one really wanted to enjoy the experience he or she would have to not be doing something else at that exact moment nor even thinking about sharing it. It was literally: stop, drop, and roll-into-the-moment. It is human nature to want to share—but the digital age has now brought forth the following questions: with how many? and why? I was sharing: with my mother, Francine, her family, and others who were present.

The way these paper lanterns work is that after you light up the inside, you have to hold it just right so the paper doesn’t catch on fire, and once it starts filling up with air, it automatically takes off, defying gravity.

That special night has stayed with me and here are some lessons I learned from lighting a Chinese paper lantern.

  • Lesson 1It takes two.  One person has to hold the lantern sideways and the other has to to light the inside. Although it can be done by yourself, it is not that easy do it alone and it can be a little dangerous.

This is certainly true when it comes to creating things in life. We will always need each other to launch new ideas, ignite new projects, and tilt reality sideways to create a more fulfilling life.

  • Lesson 2:   You have to make sure you hold the lantern just right so the paper doesn’t catch on fire.

If you are in a hurry to get things done, sometimes you burn out even if it doesn’t burn the project entirely.

  • Lesson 3Once it is lit you have to wait till the insides fill up and until they do you have to hold it just right so it doesn’t plop and fall on the ground.

It is quite something to hold an open flame. The longer you hold a flame that can lift something, the deeper the awe. Awe at the principles that govern, the very principles that transcend hype and man-made injustices. Awe at the attention that is demanded to focus on what matters or else it will crash.

  • Lesson 4:   You can’t push the Chinese lantern up;  you have to let go just at the right time when it automatically starts moving up, precisely when it is ready and not a second sooner.

You can prepare as much as you want, but some things happen just when the time is right and no sooner and to witness this principle in action was quite reassuring. And exhilarating.

  • Lesson 5: When it is ready to lift, lift, lift, you have to let the paper lantern go without fearing it will fall back down.

Some things, most things, are just bigger than you can imagine, and you have to trust. That which feels like a letting go may just be a step on the next rung of your evolution. The world is falling apart in so many ways, but who says this deep cleansing is not in order given how we have been giving value to the wrong things and looked the other way when the very people who are supposed to be in charge of solutions are creating more problems due to their lack of vision or greed.

  • Lesson 6:  Some lanterns go up slowly and for others the lanterns just shoot up; some lanterns can be seen for a very long time once in the sky and other just disappear into a dot.

I asked mama about her lantern taking longer than others to take off. In fact, my mother’s paper lantern, almost didn’t take off! We had some technical difficulties to launch it.  I joked, “Maybe you put too many wishes on it!” My mother replied, “Or maybe they have very far to go so they took their time.”

I don’t remember my wish that I whispered to my lantern that night. This is nothing new. I am often like a deer-caught-in-headlights when it comes to making wishes on the spot. I am usually so overcome with gratitude that I forget about all that I wish was different, at least in that moment.

California is not the final destination; I still miss my family of friends in the East Coast, and I have learned to miss New York City in a different way, one without longing. Meanwhile, during these in-between days I am grateful for this abundance of love and the close proximity to my family.

“This kind of knowledge is a thing that comes in a moment like a light kindled from a leaping spark, which, once it has reached the soul, finds its own fuel.” ~ Plato

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