Thursday, January 31, 2019

Am I allowed to write this?

Recently I told another writer not to self-reject. Most of us have been there, I suspect. We look at a market's guidelines or its table of contents and think, I am so underqualified to send work there. I don't want to waste their time and mine.

Sometimes it's a long shot, but a shot worth taking. I made a poetry sale last week that, if I'd listened to that voice of doubt, never would have happened. I asked myself, "But what if it's too long?" about twenty times before I finally hit send.

I'm glad I did, though. Boy, howdy!

I used to think I couldn't crochet either, yet here we are.

I had a point somewhere here. Oh, yeah: that whole self-rejecting thing also applies to writing the rough draft. I was working on a poem today and it went to a darker place than I was expecting. Like, really dark. I sat with my fingers on the keyboard for a while and argued with myself. Should I write it? Taking it in a different direction felt like it wasn't true to the poem. But if I wrote it, and sold it, people might jump to conclusions about me. Wrong conclusions. Yeesh.

In the end, I'm not sure I'll send it out. That's an argument for a different day, when I've had time to revise and think about it. For now, I'm just sitting with the half-triumphant, half-sick feeling of doing something difficult. That's a powerful sensation.

So, don't self-reject. Don't even do it when you're drafting. If it scares you, you're probably onto something good.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Essays on the quality of "Enough"

Over the past few days, I've been reading the new collection of Heather Havrilesky's essays, What If This Were Enough?

It's a subject I've talked about before here, the tension between sufficiency and lack. With the rise of Marie Kondo's tidying-up empire, it seems like everything is about asking whether the things in your life spark joy, and to unload them if they don't. Not a bad thing entirely, in our consumption-driven world. After all, if you've read as much 19th century literature as I have, you know that consumption is deadly in all its forms.

This is Bandon Beach in Oregon. It sparks joy for me. Not that I have a trash can big enough to throw it out.

Havrilesky's book could have a slightly different title, though. In many of her essays it seems as though she's asking, What if you were enough? In a world driven by clicks and likes, where it's easy to feel isolated and ignored because everything moves so darn fast, sometimes the vortex pulls you down. It's especially true for creative types. At our best, we're laying open our wounds to the world or trying to spin beauty out of our daydreams or our day to day existence. When the universe yawns and moves on to the Next Big Thing with nary a glance . . . well, that raises some questions about meaning. About life choices, and whether we maybe should have gotten a 'useful' degree and some of those sweet, sweet corporate dollars.

There are essays in What If This Were Enough? that remind me of Anne Lamott's wry spirituality, and others that take a more polemical tone. But the quiet musings about little things--her marriage, her childhood home, the importance of having a sense of adequacy--really struck home for me. She writes:

 We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. . . Here is how you will start: You will recognize that you are not headed for some imaginary finish line . . . You will see that you are as much of a miracle as Mozart was. (p. 217)

Today, I set out to write a sestina. It's a particular poetic form that I've found both enjoyable and challenging to write in the past. So I asked if anyone could suggest a few words for me to use as a basis. Two friends sent me lists of words, and I culled out the ones that spoke to me. When I finished, I sent them a draft of the poem because I was pleased with how it had turned out. Reading the concluding essay of Havrilesky's collection reminded me how fortunate I am to have friends who participate joyfully in the work with me. I am so fortunate to have met people who encourage me and celebrate the things I create. What a gift it is, when friends treat you as if you are indeed enough, a blessing to them in spite of your flaws and shortcomings.

This is what enough means.

Monday, January 7, 2019

New Publication! Honey and Venom at Wizards in Space

It's been way too long since I've posted, but I spent a big chunk of last year writing a novel draft (yay!) and dealing with some personal stuff (not so yay). But here's a poem that's up online and free to read.

Honey and Venom

More to come soonish!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Comfort food--Anafre

It's Super Bowl Sunday (or Superb Owl Sunday, for those non-sports fans) and I've got the traditional football-watching dinner cooking in the crockpot. We were introduced to anafre at our favorite local Mexican restaurant when the Spousal Unit ordered it out of curiosity. It was delicious, and we spent the rest of the meal trying to figure out what was in it so I could make it at home.

Anafre is Honduran bean dip. Traditionally it's cooked in stoneware pots, but I've found the crockpot works well, too. My version, like La Tolteca's, contains pork, but the great thing about this recipe is that it would be easy to make a vegetarian or vegan version.

Just added the avocados this morning. Yum!

I have a giant crockpot, obviously, so this will last us most of the week. I'll give you a version about 2/3 this size, and if you have a tiny pot, you'll want to cut it down further.


1 1/2 pounds of pork, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large onion, diced (I use yellow or white onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, de-seeded and minced
2 large cans black beans (1 lb. 13 oz.)
2 avocados, diced
1 cup Mexican blend cheese, shredded (or your cheese of choice)

If you're going vegetarian, leave out the pork and increase the beans and avocados. And if anyone's got good vegan cheese recommendations, feel free to add them in the comments.

Throw the first five ingredients in the crockpot and cook on low heat. (My crockpot is super-slow, so I've had it on medium heat overnight. For a smaller pot, an eight-hour cook time should suffice.) Add the avocados when you've got 2-3 hours to go. When you're down to the last half hour, throw in the cheese. Serve with scoop tortilla chips.

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Put on your bifocals

A few years ago, I got a sinus infection so bad that it apparently pushed one of my eyeballs out of shape. Before the infection, I had 20/20 vision. After, things remained out of focus, and I found myself in need of some visual assistance.

Of course, at a certain point my eyes were going to need a little extra help anyway, so my second pair of glasses turned out to be the dreaded bifocals. (And let me just tell you, the first time wearing those was a trip. Literally, because I couldn’t figure out (a) where the floor was, and (b) what my feet were doing relative to the floor.) Even after a year and a half, I’m not used to tipping my head up or down depending on what I’m trying to look at. For instance, when I go to a hockey game at the arena, it usually takes me until halfway through the first period to remember that I’m not watching on TV, and therefore need to angle my head accordingly even though the apparent size of the little skating people is the same.

All the same, having gone through a few weeks where I wasn’t entirely sure that my vision would recover even partially, I’m grateful to be able to cheat Nature a bit and keep reading.

I was thinking this week about the power of bifocals—being able to focus on things both near and far despite the weaknesses of aging eyes, without switching glasses every few minutes—and how that relates to telling stories and writing poems.

Writers need to be able to view their work through a number of lenses, and switch between those lenses with a certain degree of ease. We wear one pair for rough draft work and another for editing. We filter our work depending on the setting or the perspective of the narrator, the market at which we’re aiming or the images we want to linger in our readers’ minds. Recently I drafted a story, one that has some resonance with my life out here in the real world, and I have an emotional attachment to those resonances. That was the story I needed to tell myself, about sisterhood and sacrifices.

Do these glasses make me look more intellectual? That's my 'I wish I was watching hockey instead of writing' face.

When I had saved the completed draft of that story, I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I'd finished something I didn't hate. Inevitably, though, I also thought about the ways in which the story didn’t work. I could see where trying to force the story into a familiar folkloric pattern, I’d weakened it. Looking at it through another lens, I began to see the loose threads and ways I could weave them back into the story. I spotted some places where I had sacrificed the emotional heart of the story for the sake of generating action for the plot.  

As I read other people’s fiction more thoughtfully, it grinds the lenses through which I see my own work. If I can learn more ways to see the patterns of stories—bifocals, trifocals, or more—the world deepens, the layers grow sharper for a reader. I don’t feel a need to outwit readers, and believe that anything I write should be a like a table set for anyone who happens to wander in. Not everyone’s going to like what I’m serving, but I can at least offer a welcome rather than a slammed door.

Yet at the same time, I believe writing and revising while switching between lenses can create worlds that feel more real—more truly resonant—for anyone who takes the time to visit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Emptiness vs. Lack

Lately my spiritual reading has been divided between a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and poetry by the Sufi mystic Rumi. One thing in particular that fascinates me is the way in which two such different spiritual paths can converge on similar ideas. Lately I've noticed how both Thich Nhat Hahn and Rumi talk about emptiness as a key element of spirituality.

At first I found myself a little resistant. In our culture, emptiness implies an absence, an unfilled need. Emptiness, in other words, is bad. But then my poet tendencies kicked in, and I started to think about emptiness in other ways. In the Christian tradition, the principle of sacrifice turns up again and again--both the great sacrifice of Christ, but also the smaller ways in which his followers can abandon their sins and weaknesses, give up our wants in the moment for something better in the future.

It occurred to me that the common denominator in all these faith ways is the idea of emptiness as potentiality: creating space for something better and higher, rather than merely going without. Emptiness is a state of readiness, where the person who seeks greater insight prepares a place for that insight. It's like leaving a field fallow one year so it's ready for seeds and summer's growth the next.

Maybe it's a symptom of the core problem in our society that we see emptiness not as potential, but lack. A friend and I were discussing what we call 'the famine mentality' recently. It's at the root of our unhealthy relationship with food and my tendency to buy more books than I can read. I know there's a hole, and I grasp at ways to fill it.

It manifests in broader ways, too: the sense that immigrants will steal jobs or pose a threat to safety. The worship of financial ruthlessness over generosity. The zero-sum approach to relationships of all kinds, from romance and marriage to parenting and friendship. If I can only see my own loss in someone else's gain or success, there's only lack, not emptiness. Consumed by the need for more to fill the hole, I've left no room for the possibility of joy and peace.

There's a great deal of anger and blame going around, over what's gone wrong in our world. And there's much to fear. But I think we won't get better until we stop seeing only what we lack, and start cultivating an empty place--an open place--for hope and kindness.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Haunted Ground

At the entrance to the Salaspils transit camp near Riga

In 1987, I spent three weeks in what was then the Soviet Union as a student ambassador. We stopped in Moscow and St. Petersburg (which was still Leningrad back then), in Sochi and Azerbaijan, in the Baltic capitals of Tallinn and Riga. We saw some amazing, beautiful things while we were there, and met kind and thoughtful people. And maybe one day I'll tell you about that, but today I'm going to talk about the place that made the deepest impression of all.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR, they expanded their extermination program, collecting Jewish people and anyone else they deemed undesirable and transporting them to concentration camps to the west. They built places like Salaspils, outside Riga, collection points from which they'd ship their victims. 

A memorial statue at Salaspils

Nazis committed horrible crimes at the transit camps, too. Maybe not on the scale of a place like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, but still sickening, in the inhumane treatment of innocent human beings, the cruelty, the callous disregard for life and families and the most basic principles of morality.

Until that day, the Holocaust was something of which I was aware, but only on a superficial level (yes, genocide=bad). It was a terrible thing that had happened far in the past, but it seemed to intersect little, if at all, with my fortunate life. But walking through the remnants of the camp, seeing the pictures, hearing the stories of families torn asunder . . . It made me think, on a level I hadn't before, about what it all meant, the big picture, but also the individual lives. 

Another of the memorial statues

I've tried three or four times to write a stunning conclusion to this, and I can't believe the things I feel I ought to say. Like, "Torturing people is a bad idea for a lot of reasons." Or, "It's a bad precedent to turn legal residents away at the border and keep them from their families and jobs." Or, God help us, "When I was a kid, 'alternative facts' were known as lying and no one approved."

Here's the thing about power based on fear: The people who hold it always have to generate more fear to keep that power. They always have to have someone, something, to destroy. The rest of us are just a means to an end for those who think that way, and being a true believe will not save you once you cease to be useful.

The ghosts of the past are calling out from their haunted ground. Will we listen to their warning?