“valley of the world…” ~ Steinbeck

 February 22, 2015.

I have just returned from attending an education conference in the South Bay, specifically San Jose. I presented strategies on creating space for learners to figure out what is thinking before they can do anything else, especially writing, and writing about reading, and how the mere act of writing leads to thinking. In the digital pollution of trends and hypes, I am so grateful for such a wonderful turnout of dedicated, passionate educators who trusted that I had something valuable to share. I am creating—or rather Vusi will be—a separate website for all that (of course I will reference what’s posted there here too, but only occasionally since this space is not an “education blog” per se, although it can and shall be whatever I want, whenever).

In some ways it was a very disappointing conference because I came across “educator celebrities” and there is no alternative voice challenging their “wisdom”, or rather, engaging (yes, that is a better word) engaging with their conclusions. The greatest educators question, especially themselves. I am not sure when educators began vying for stardom. It’s sad given this is a profession of service and this state, like many others, and essentially our country, really needs critical thinkers right now to ask better questions even if there are no easy answers. That being said I also happened to meet some phenomenal educators in attendance for whom teaching is indeed a calling, not just a job. There were also authors present, authors whose works were new to me so it was nice to hear them speak. Of all of them, I really enjoyed listening to author Cristina Garcia. Later I asked her where I could find her essay on exile and she said she wasn’t sure it was published. She was generous enough to offer mailing me a copy. I saved her the hassle and ran around the hotel lobby looking for a copying machine and copied it. I will definitely be writing about exile on a later date and sharing an excerpt from her essay.

There is too much to say about all that on a Sunday evening, especially a Sunday evening where it is raining so hard that the rain drops are diving pellets, a welcome-kind of rain. I can almost hear the earth exhale upon being nourished.

Another two very full weeks ahead. It’s finally beginning to feel like a new year.

On my drive back, I pulled over on Pacheco Pass near the garlic smelling town of Gilroy because I couldn’t resist staring at these hills a little longer. Immediately I was reminded of Steinbeck’s letter (I have shared this exact quote before even but today I felt it, really felt the words rest inside of me), although he was not speaking of this specific location:

“I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” Steinbeck’s letter to George Albee, Salinas, 1933

 

Today, for the first time since I have been in California, I had a moment, a tiny moment, where I could see “valley of the world” as I drove by. I wanted to hold on to that moment so I took these photos.

-a.q.s.

 

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“small diagnostic truths”

November 2, 2014.

Still Sundays.

 

 

“My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country.  I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light.  I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.  […] So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.”

 

The aforementioned passage is from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America. I happened to come by an 8th edition at an antique shop which I readily purchased. No regrets about that buy. On the contrary, several months prior to that, I bought—my curiosity had led me to get caught up in the Colbert-Amazon-Hachette controversy—California the debut novel by Edan Lepucki. It attempts at the dystopian genre which describes post-apocalyptic California. I was really hopeful to read something insightful. It didn’t take me very long to realize that the story read as if following a creative writing workshop formula. The characters were two-dimensional at best and the plot lacked the depth I was expecting. I read some reviews and they echoed my thoughts and feelings much more aptly than I cared to explore in writing a review myself. You can read two here: “Lepucki’s cautious dystopia never quite asks the right questions of us, ultimately to the detriment of the novel” and “mediocre characters plodding along in a meandering plot.”

I unsuccessfully tried to return my disappointment at the local Barnes and Noble. For months now it has been sitting on a small shelf where it is not visible. No one knows it is in this house but I know. I haven’t given it to recycling yet or donated it to a used bookstore. It sits there as a reminder about how not to write, how to contain your excitement about an “idea” as you work on the craft instead of just telling the idea as a story.  More importantly, I think I have allowed it to fester in my space because I haven’t figured out my own reasons for disliking it so much other than the obvious ones in the reviews.

 

It was only this morning while reading that excerpt by Steinbeck that the profoundness of my dislike for that book became clear. A sentence formed to provide clarity: I am offended. Yes, that was the word! I was offended! I was offended by Lepucki’s treatment of the post-apocalyptic California (her attempt was to shed light on current California) because she failed to tell “small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.” And she failed to do so because, like many from California or those visiting here, have only been exposed to one version of California. California is a huge state that has endured many transitions and consists of so many middle-America towns that it can take a life-time “getting the story” right. Moreover, unlike New York City which the entire state of New York treats as a separate entity, here everyone carries on as if life begins/ends in one corner of the state in one prominent city and ends/begins in another well-known city. There is no delusion of “oneness” in New York City; New York City is that weird mole on the face of the state which just happens to belong there and there isn’t anything that can be done about it even if not all view it as a beauty mark. Austin is another example that comes to mind: it is an anomaly city. Even within anomalies there exist exceptions that originally make them an anomaly and without a deeper exploring, even if not physically, of the land itself, I think one would be hard pressed to write a story that offers “larger truths.”

 

Other than celebrating that clarity, I have been exploring “small diagnostic truths” this Sunday morning where the day offered an extra hour thanks to Day Light Savings Time. Things are certainly shifting. It is November! The Day of the Dead just passed and we should all be more concerned about the ghosts we may become than the ghosts that may haunt us.

2014 is almost over. What a year it has been. In many ways I have felt the entire year can be defined as if someone accidentally hit “freeze” in a game filled with more tricks than treats. This is not to imply lack of momentum but more akin to holding large blocks of ice and putting them in an order that doesn’t really exist. So you finally give up and the ice starts melting and you realize there was nothing to put together in the first place. Except the giving up required hitting an  “unfreeze” and that was up to Time.  So, it’s time. We only view it as end of the year because of the calendar we have created, for all we know November 1, 2014 might very well be the beginning of everything.  It sure feels like it.

Another “small diagnostic truth” is the work I am doing in the field of literacy. I am beyond elated about putting together evidence in the form of a book. I didn’t know my first book would be a collection of stories and I didn’t expect my second one to be about students writing and third one to possibly be children’s fiction. I have considered starting a separate blog that pertains to education but a “small truth” of the matter is that all of that too is my life. I never imagined sitting and writing stories here or elsewhere in some ivory tower sipping on my tea and looking out the window at a world in which I didn’t participate. And so it is: all of my living which I choose to share belongs in this space, my cares about legal reforms and how they are shaping the American landscape to what is going on in the classrooms. After all, what good is writing if there are no adults who can read? I attended a recent conference where phenomenal educator, author, speaker, consultant, Kelly Gallagher, mentioned an article from the Washington Post, “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researches say“.  The author of  Proust and the Squid calls this an “eye byte” culture. I feel compelled to share my findings that show if reading is taught by those who love to read, the current students who are in elementary schools, even English Language Learners, actually prefer to read print although they enjoy the digital world as a tool to extend their reading.

 

All these “small diagnostic truths” this year have led me to the foundations of a larger truth: the larger Universe opens up to us to the extent we let go of our reigns over our smaller universe.

“Bloom where planted” feels only glorious in theory and not in actuality because in reality you can’t always predict what blooms since it depends where you are planted. I don’t think the Universe would have it any other way.

Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost, but climb.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

 

“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.

Understanding California, thanks to Steinbeck

A year ago today I moved from New York City, my home—or the closest someone of my disposition gets to calling a place home—to California, where my family makes it a home for me. I captured that experience on a quasi Still Sunday here last year when I was between JFK and SFO.

A week prior to moving I submitted the collection of stories to be published because I thought I was “done.” I had no idea the work only begins when you think you are done. Nonetheless, today I am actually finished. Editing, more editing, and then some more. It just didn’t end. It was exhausting and I came close to giving up so many times, often because there was so much else that was going on since I have been in California. To be honest, one final attributions page still remains! It really shakes you up, the entire process.  It is a humbling process too: your final, most polished draft still needed editing. It puts these blog posts in perspective.

I am coming out of it thinking, the best part about writing really is the writing itself. That being said, if I didn’t leave NYC for a year or two, if I didn’t grab life by the horns, I would have been trampled under life’s business-as-usual hooves. And I don’t think I would have ever been able to offer more than what I have been offering here. That is to say, living, really living, the times it feels like you have no time for living, is as necessary as writing itself and sometimes the living aspect looks like you are not producing anything.

Also, it has been living here for a bit, being knee-deep in the real California and not just visiting my family, that I have found a new understanding about literature as an art form.

I have been re-reading John Steinbeck.

This is from the scene when the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath finally get to California:

And the man said, “You ain’t gonna get no steady work. Gonna scrabble for your dinner ever’ day. An’ you gonna do her with people lookin’ mean at you. Pick cotton, an’ you gonna be sure the scales ain’t honest. Some of ‘em is, an’ some of ‘em ain’t. But you gonna think all the scales is crooked, an’ you don’ know which ones. Ain’t nothin’ you can do about her anyways.”

Pa asked slowly, “Aint-ain’t it nice out there at all?”

“Sure, nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it. They’s a grove of yella oranges-an’ a guy with a gun that got the right to kill you if you touch one. They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres-”

Casy looked up quickly, “Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?”

“I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin’.”

There is a longer excerpt here. The chapter which begins, “Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans.”

Being in California now, although many migrant farm workers are brought here as laborers for those who own the land, and some might even be “illegal”, but there are many who have been here for generations and consider Mexico a neighboring state. It is truly a complex situation in many ways.

Anyway, Steinbeck reported this complexity, the relationship of people wanting to possess the land against people trying to survive against all odds in this abundant land, with such swift mastery, that Grapes of Wrath was written in five months and went on to win many prestigious awards and remains an American classic. That was in 1939 and while he wrote it he gave us another gift, a journal he kept for the entire time he was working on Grapes of Wrath, now titled, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941. Some research via the search engine www.duckduckgo.com (of course Google doesn’t provide many solid results anymore; easily accessible doesn’t translate to good quality!) led to a site that had an excerpt from it:

June 9: …This must be a good book. It simply must…

June 11: …My life isn’t very long and I must get one book written before it ends. The others have been make shifts, experiments, practices. For the first time I am working on a real book…

June 18: …I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…

I first came upon Grapes of Wrath in 8th grade in Kansas and I didn’t finish it. I had read Steinbeck’s other works and thought I would enjoy it but I only finished half. Then it was junior year in high school and I was enrolled in an AP Honors English class (which I was almost failing because I was so bored trying to decode meaning out of literature as the teacher understood it from way back when she was taught in school, not even meaning she had derived from her own critical thinking) and we had to read it. I read it; I finished it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t take to it as much as his other novels but I didn’t think much more about it as I decided to do a required assignment on Faulkner instead. However, Grapes of Wrath did leave an impression on me to the extent it leaves an impression on anyone: it shocks you.  Then I had to read it again in some college course and I was more taken with the quality of the writing. Every time it was presented as “historical fiction” or “realistic fiction” or “classic” and never how it relates to the current time.

 

A year in California and I have been dumping my pail of questions on anyone and everyone, trying to make sense of the way things are here, and everyone says the same thing, that’s just how things are. I have been compassionate, I have been confused. I have been angry, and I have felt hopeless given the state of this state. And then, one morning, around 4:00 a.m. I woke up thinking about Grapes of Wrath. Just like that, out of nowhere. I started reading and re-reading excerpts and then any and everything Steinbeck felt while writing it. After it was published it has been noted that he stated, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” 

 

So, here I am, a year later in California, thinking about “there is a failure here that topples all our success” which was presented as fiction by a man in 1939 in the hopes that that reality wouldn’t be repeated. And yet has anything changed?  

 

Yet somehow I feel better. Despite this knowing that nothing has changed or even if things have become worse, there exists an account, a most raw portrayal, of triumph of the human spirit against all odds. It’s still possible today.

 

Steinbeck knew exactly what he was doing even when he had doubts. Never underestimate the power of intentional creation as opposed to talent just oozing out ever so naturally. 

Great Art—literature—lives dormant inside your lack-of-understanding until it bursts open like a parachute to save you from all that you can’t change. It helps you land on the ground from where you must try anyway.

I understand why it is mandatory reading in most competent high schools even if many people behind those decisions can’t remember reading it, nor teach it: art is an eternal exhale on the glass of Time.

After (the) Thoughts

I don’t have much time to write these days.

I know there are many, many, many—too many—books and blogs that reiterate the following in so many awe-inspiring ways: “if it is important to you, you will make the time.”  I don’t think it always works like that and when it does, even then, amongst the “most-important-to-me” list, sometimes the top three priorities trump the bottom three. As if there is only one thing that can be important at any given moment. Blaming Time aside, I don’t think I can offer anything new at this moment, specially about California—I have said all I had to say without it becoming a diatribe—which quickly turns into a tirade against all that is going on, especially in the field of education, that is not in my control despite best efforts to stay informed, inform, and take thoughtful actions.

I think about John Steinbeck often. His detached yet compassionate prose which observed and observed meticulously must have been borne out of a necessity to deal with the Salinas, the Depression, the people, the injustices even if exclusive to those times.

Writing is surrender.

I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” from Steinbeck’s letter to George Albee, Salinas, 1933.

As far as the information on the Internet goes, this provides a better biography when it comes to Steinbeck relating to the land and its people out West that make up the rest of the California, the majority of the California, which is not Silicon Valley or San Diego or San Francisco.

None of this is to say I don’t write anymore; although, sharing here is sporadic for now, and thoughts barely make it to paper.  But I am some kind of a jellyfish that absorbs stories even when I am not thinking. Saying, “I don’t think I will write again” is akin to stating, “I don’t think I will have the XX chromosome set tomorrow.” I do have plenty to say about the state of education in California and USA but I am not at liberty to share my views at this point. I can direct you to check out the following posts/blogs. If you have children, or know someone who has children, or at all care about what kind of children are going to be running this country and world, I think it is worth learning about.

 

On a lighter note, we had a lovely weekend in Ventura.

I was reminded I am made of water after all so I don’t really need to swim.

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I was reminded that uncertainties are sweeter with a partner who understands you and can see you were born to fly.

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And that soon it will be time to fly away…

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And that we should have stuck around longer to really make sure this guy returned the poor starfish back to the water.  The starfish was left on the pier when it accidentally got caught in some other man’s crab net.

Humans are so self-absorbed; is it any wonder they suffer so much?

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And somehow trees make me feel everything turns out okay even when I can’t see so.

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