Blog & News

Fourth Street 2017

I tend not to join heated conversations, particularly internet ones, for a couple of reasons: They’re rarely actually conversations; I get emotionally hooked and obsess over things that take me away from my work; and I have a bit of (perhaps faulty) programming in my head that runs this way– angry people are potentially dangerous. My tendency is to stay out of their way.
But I’m wading in.
I love Fourth Street. Unabashedly. It’s a place I feel safe to be me — to be the overly-excitable, talkative enthusiast who asks too many questions, who gets carried away. It’s a place my kid feels okay being who he is, and that means more to me than I can put into words. It’s a place where excitement and emotional intensity run high. And I love that. Most of the time. This time, it really challenged me.
I tend to read how (and how strongly) a person feels before I process what they say. I had registered something – not danger, not threat — but something that called for heightened alertness before Steve even started talking. The second thing I remember feeling was some weird kind of exclusion anxiety, the sense that there was a high-stakes conversation already in progress that I hadn’t known about. Consequentially, welcoming ceremonies didn’t feel super welcoming. The experience I was hoping for — what I love about Fourth Street — felt under threat. I felt uncomfortable.
I feel much more uncomfortable now.
I’m not saying anyone made me feel this way. Hundreds of things, and experiences, and social forces, and neuroses contribute to my emotional reaction to things. I am not making anyone else responsible for my reactions. I am saying how I feel. As a data point. As practice.
Because I want to talk about things that matter and that elicit strong emotions. I want to hear everybody. I know that the expression of strong negative emotion (particularly anger) makes that harder for me.
So what do I do? I only see three choices, and I don’t love any of them: I stop talking about certain highly-charged topics, I excuse myself from the conversation when the expression of strong negative emotion becomes overwhelming for me, or I stop talking with particular people. Maybe there are options I don’t see, but for now, this is me trying to break my programmed preference for silencing myself in the face of discord, and talk about something that makes me feel vulnerable and afraid.
So here’s my question: how do we have a conversation about how we talk? How do we get to hear everybody? How do we create a space for meaningful conversation from a wide range of passionate voices about the stories we love, the ideas behind them, and the craft of their creation?
Okay, that wasn’t one question, it was three, but math isn’t emotional enough to interest me.

New Things

I’m working on collecting my writing (and written) life in a single place, so over the past few days, I’ve been dumping old bits and pieces of things — essays, early attempts at fiction, even a stray poem into blog pages.  I’m making some attempt to organize it here, but if you’re reading backwards in sequence, fair warning:  it’s going to get messy.

 

This I Believe

One day, the ground opened up and swallowed me.
Or maybe I took the road of good intentions.
Either way, I found myself in hell.
They’ve redecorated.
Tidy concentric rings have given way to total patternless disorder. There is no plan, no purpose, no meaning. Eve’s snake is here, coiled in the knowledge of good and evil, but I’ve eaten those apples and seen people chewing different fruit from the same branch fly planes into buildings secure in the knowledge they’ve ingested.
I can’t stomach good and evil anymore, but hell is prowled by ravenous questions and every bone I could throw these beasts crumbles, made of nothing more substantial than belief.
Hell isn’t even other people anymore, but my pathetic inability to connect with them in a meaningful way. But there is an exit, and I make my first move towards it with the fairytale trick of learning the monster’s name. The pain he inflicts teaches it to me.
If you’re being annihilated, something within you must exist to be destroyed. So I discover, at the cruel boundary of nothingness, the answer to his question. If entropy (and I can feel it) exists and deconstructs, then there must be a force that builds, or everything would be nothing already.
“Chaos and Order exist” I tell him “And I choose Order over you, you nasty devouring worm.”
After Chaos, the next monster in my path is God, and “sore afraid” doesn’t begin to cover it. I lash myself to the mast against the song of everything I want most—a deep and divine love for me personally, a god with a plan, a destiny to discover, a meaning to fulfill. But there’s no singer, only everything there is- and it’s telling a story.
It’s a story that orders and creates, that opposes entropy, that begets duality, and I want to join in, to lend my voice to the telling, to order and create. We are all the stories told by Story itself, and told in its image, we too can spin a yarn- a sophisticated post-modern one or a simple quest story
with monsters and blunt symbolism.
Belief is always a choice. I believe in stories.
I believe in stories that illustrate who we are, that share vulnerability and build shared history.
I believe in unknown stories that play themselves out through me until I catch on and stop, or edit them.
I believe in Story’s power to create reality, to transfer information across generations, to transform pain into meaning, to unify a nation- or divide one.
I believe each life is an equally valuable story told, through which Story- or God,lives out itself in sacred exposition, even when I can’t understand the narrative or decode the symbolism. I have seen brutal stories trumped by the stories people have chosen in response. I believe we can narrate our way out of hell.
The weenies had the nerve, after all work writing the essay, on the submission page, to ask for 600-800 words on the writing process. Here’s mine:

When your homemade belief system can be reduced to “I believe in stories,” you feel a certain obligation to tell what you believe in the form of a story. Ultimately, I wrote the story of the very personal journey I undertook when staying home with my infant son gave me both regular contact with the primal chaos, and time to experience and confront it within myself.

This project challenged me to return along a difficult path, to tell my own story, to re-examine the demons, and to force into at least grudging submission the story of what in the (quite literal) hell I’m doing here. The complete answer was 1564 words too long. There were unwieldy ideas to negotiate around practical corners and a wacky Frankenstein of fantasy, faith and philosophy to pretty up and teach to speak.

I wanted to conclude my story with the happy ending of never having returned to the dark place it describes, but that would have made my story a fiction. Writing is the only way I know to extricate myself from hell, so I return here, to the unstructured uncreated, where materials are truly raw, in order to write new exits– new stories, new understanding, and now, a radio essay.

With every visit, meaninglessness and powerlessness feed on me less (although a devilish invisibility can cling to me even in my stay-at-home mom’s world of checkout lines and soccer games where I swear people look right through me), but every trip in leaves a new exit. Having abandoned all hope and lost all faith, I discover my freedom to create hope and to choose faith.

I can’t tell if this new creation will be useful or even interesting to NPR listeners, but it was helpful for me to write, so thank you for that. Thank you too for the project, the results of which I’m excited to listen to and learn from. But most importantly, thank you for putting the question out there. Sometimes the most powerful thing about a question isn’t its answer.

Sing!

My daughter goes to a school where everybody sings. It’s part of the curriculum and the children, even the middle school boys, are remarkably unselfconscious about it. In High School, choir becomes an elective. There is some attrition. Last night, grades four through eight performed. I watched them, their mouths forming perfect O’s through the long “oh!” of Alouette. They are completely innocent.

I am not.

Innocence, like virginity, is not lost. Lost things can be found. Innocence is slain or sacrificed, stolen or bestowed. And in the place of slain Innocence stands Knowledge- knowledge of evil, of failure, of death. But, from the corpus atop which Knowing stakes his claim, rises Hope wrapping ghostly arms around him. And although you can strengthen Knowing, brutalize Hope, she is Innocence Dead and cannot be killed again. Stronger than the living was, she survives and cradles Knowing in cool, smoky arms. And he, the proud warrior, strides away from lifeless Innocence, brushing the clinging shroud of Hope from his shoulders only to find her twined about his legs.

A friend of mine recently correlated innocence with dreaming, with the ability to believe in, or even have, dreams. I am no innocent. But I have a dream that may just be coming true, and I don’t want to brag and I sure don’t want to jinx it, but I’m feeling really good these days. I feel powerful and centered. I feel hopeful. It’s a dangerous place to be.

When Knowing hesitates, Hope transcends, and binding him, becomes almost Innocence again, believes in things again, radiates and plunges into the sea she tried to cross barefoot. She is a ghost, after all, and has a very weak grip on reality. Knowing and Hoping have been locked in mortal tango in me since I was a few years older than my daughter is now. Hope growing corporeal, beginning to make choices for me, leading me happy, wanting, down sweet paths to deep sewers. Knowledge mucking it out, rippling forearms breaking faith and dreams to feed his horse Responsibility.

It’s not such a bad horse. I rode it here.

A full two years ago, I came up with an idea for a business, for a thing I wanted to make. I worked for a while on one part of it, but it cost too much since I’m trying to source everything through fair trade organizations. So I switched to candles: Petroleum-, Lead- and Dogma-Free Prayer Candles. They’re done now. There’re six: Heal, Hope, Peace, Praise, Grieve and Thrive. Thing is, they’ve been really well received. In fact my dad, (whose view of reality is remarkably unclouded by phantom Hopes) offered to pay for a meeting with a patent attorney to determine if there was anything worth patenting. Which, it appears, there is.

And Hope takes the upper hand, rolling over the soldier’s torso, smoothing his ache and whispering in his ear.

I am not innocent. But I am not afraid. Perhaps Hope has me too wound within her narcotic embrace, although I can still hear the warrior speak. I know I can fail. I know desire and hard work are not always enough, and that like new marriages, half of new businesses fail. I won’t let blind Hope drive this time. I ride a plodding horse. But Hope sings to grim-mouthed Knowing and this is Optimism, who meets possible calamity with “I know it can, but hope it won’t,” who teaches Knowing a partner’s gentle grip on Hope’s lithe waist, and so I hum along, bending notes between Hope and Knowing, searching for the perfect pitch.

Come on, sing the optimism tango. It has no long “oh!”s

Compassion & The High Bar

Both of my parents are professors. Dad teaches economics, Mom grammer and English composition. Once a year, every year, throughout my childhood, a magical thing happened in my parents’ home. Mom- she of the homemade everything, would present at diner one night to the family- the largest box of chocolates ever made. This miraculous box of candy (an otherwise generally forbidden commidity in our health-conscious home), would last from the early part of December until sometime in the new year. The mysterious benefactor, it was explained, had been a student of Dad’s. The idea that my dad could affect someone enough to inspire that awesome annual tribute always stayed with me. I honestly don’t think I would have appreciated what Dad did for a living if that one student hadn’t shown me in such a dramatic (and child-friendly) way. My dad taught his first course the year before my birth. I’m 36. Mom and Dad retire this month.

I made a website for them. My sister and I can’t afford to throw them a surprise retirement party, but we talked them into hosting a modest gathering on their own and we’re both flying up to attend. I’m making a paper version of the website in a beautiful handmade album to present to them. That, at least, will be a surprise. The website houses 73 entries from former students. It includes at least one tribute from every graduating class since 1966 except for 5 and some are still coming in. I had no idea so many people would respond. I was also completely unprepared for how it would affect me.

When I was a single mother holding up the grocery line with my WIC coupons I used to swear to myself that if I ever made it out of poverty and fear I’d remember to show compassion to all those less fortunate. I would never stop smiling at a child when I noticed the naked space on her mother’s left hand. I’m a democrate, a feminist, a champion of the underprivileged. Compassion is one of my highest values and I’m strident about the responsiblities that attend the fortunate. I overtip. I give to charity. I slow down so the slow can catch up. My heart bleeds. I believe in the hopes of the huddled masses and love the poor and wretched. What cost is there to too much compassion? Can you possibly hurt anyone with empathy?

I’m beginning to think you can.

“[he] taught me a lot–a lot about economics, a lot about self discipline in my thinking and work habits, and contributed to my becoming a teacher. Like him, I’m proud to say that I am regarded as a strict but conscientious teacher from whom people learn a lot, because they are compelled to do their work carefully. He set high standards, imposed fair but demanding requirements. As a freshman in his microeconomics course, I first learned of the abilities I always held in reserve, but knew nothing about. I scaled to new heights of intellectual rigor and achievement and I’ve never lost it. I’m not sure I would have found it without him. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, who gained that from him. What a wonderful legacy for a college teacher. When I am grading and providing feedback, and striving to be fair to all students, I think of how he set the standard for fairness and objectivity and making us all play by the same rules. He helped us all get ready for life, to be professionals.

When I defended my senior thesis, of which I was very proud, and on which I worked hard, he taught me another lesson. He shellacked me pretty well with questions I couldn’t answer and hadn’t anticipated and taught me the difference between advocacy and research and between correlation and coincidence. Once again he showed me the importance of open inquiry and careful thinking. (I passed with honors, anyway, and I’m sure he helped see to that along with my thesis adviser!)

Anyway, Bill Whitesell is a man I respect greatly, and who I think of regularly in my work and when I try to have an impact on my students. I have also had the opportunity to affect several hundred people as they prepare for their careers, and have a chance also to serve in government with distinguished and capable people–largely because of the intellectual awakening that he and they helped me gain and because of the special gifts they each gave me in personal growth”
Written by a man who graduated when I was 5.

Then there’s this excerpt from a student who had Dad almost 20 years later:

“…to get an A, along with nice comments (the constructive criticism was standard), and a “thank you” from Professor Whitesell was huge. It was so huge that it stayed with me for a very long time. My eventual career path in corporate and financial public relations included lots and lots of writing — often speeches, quotes, presentations, or position papers for CEO’s and high-ranking executives to deliver on Wall Street, in front of Congress, or with members of the media. Sometimes, I was intimidated by the speaker for whom I was writing, sometimes I was intimidated by the intended audience, sometimes I was intimidated by the subject matter. Always in the back of my mind, though, was the knowledge that I had impressed Bill Whitesell. And, if I could impress Bill Whitesell, these folks would be a walk in the park. I’ve drawn on that confidence countless times, and it has been like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.”

Everything that people have sent in tends more or less along these lines. Some are funny, some heartfelt, some short some very long, but they all point to Dad as very hard grader and a lovely person.

I keep thinking about the Flow book that blew my mind a while back. He talks about our contemporary drive to raise the self-esteem of children as being wrong headed. Not because self esteem isn’t important; it is. Self confidence is the best predictor for successful careers, marriages, and overall life satisfaction. He says self esteem comes, not from repeated successes, but from a few hard-won ones.

My daughter got so many merit badges from brownies that she ran out of vest space after two years. She would not have been able to tell you what any of them were for. She gets a trophy at the end of every soccer season regardless of how her team has done.

I wonder if we’re so eager to protect children from the idea that they have failled that they don’t realize it’s a possibility. Or, more likely, I wonder if most of us don’t wander about with a vague sense of dread that we might really be failures, only we’ve been protected from those tests that might tell us so.

What my Dad gave his students was the absolute knowledge that they had been tested. Over and over I hear the gratitude for having been pushed harder and further than they knew they could go by a man who believed in them and forced them to believe in themselves.

Of course I don’t get letters from the kids he failled. And for every person who remembers that they earned that rare Bill Whitesell A there are all those kids who make the A’s rare. For every A Dad gave there were several B’s, many C’s, quite a few D’s and some F’s. Every semester my dad failled kids who didn’t try hard enough, didn’t come to class often enough, or who just weren’t smart enough. And I feel sorry for those kids.

Of course those kids did fine and I’m not really worried about them. They blamed Dad, or they decided on a different major, or they developed better study habits. But some maybe internalized it, and knew themselves to be failures. I don’t know.

An economist’s daughter, I am, of course, familiar with a standard bell curve so called because it resembles the cross section of a bell. Create a graph. On the vertical axis write “people” on the horizontal write “success”. A few people will map far to the right on the success line. These are the students who write my dad. These are the people whose speeches get heard, whose money matters. The majority fall in the fat of the bell. Average successes. They make enough, are happy enough, raise their children well enough. By whatever criteria you evaluate success, the highest vertical of people will land here. If it’s a good bell curve, about as many people will land close to the axis as land far from it. We see them with their cardboard signs and shopping cards. Hamstrung by illness or abuse, damaged, clinging close to the zero point on our graph.

Under the dome of the bell the average are safe, but those on the margins steal from each other. I believe it is right that the wealthiest help support the poorest, but should the fastest be hobbled so the slow don’t feel bad? If the test is made easier so that every student who’s come to class can get his yellow belt, will I fail to see the next master? If we take education funding away from gifted and talented programs to fund programs for kids with ravaged home lives who must first learn basic social skills. Does admitting that compassion has a price make me heartless?

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. That person knows she is the best.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it. They all feel proud. The one person who could have cleared 12 feet never knows it.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. The rest feel like failures, and hate the one. They decide the bar’s impossibly high, blame the bar and feel OK about themselves.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it, the others feel even worse. Can’t make even this.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

I don’t know. Does someone always have to get left behind? Do you always sacrifice one end of the bell for the other?

I wish I could say with conviction: I have been tested and not found wanting.
I wish I could say: I’m the kind of person who can do things that are hard to do.

If you’re drowning, who do you want pool side:
me emoting with you, feeling your pain, empathizing with your fear, “oh darling, that must be so hard for you! You must be so afraid!”
Or some asshole shouting: “What’s the matter with you!?! Paddle you idiot! Swim! Quit that stupid flailing around and roll over onto your goddamn back and breathe!”

I think I want someone to kick my ass.

So like me, to want things I can’t give though. I’m better at compassion, at empathy. And while that feels good to give and get, I don’t know that its’ helpful. Does my compassion help people stay stuck. Would it be better, braver, to risk angering my friends by calling them to account. Would I be judgmental or heartless if I stopped giving comfort to those staying stuck? If I comfort my stuck friend, listen, empathize, am I getting in the way of the time where being stuck hurts so much they begin to move forward again? Am I willing to trade the short run popularity of being “supportive” for the long term thanks that may not come if you hold someone’s feet to the fire? Do I have the courage to tell my friend that I think he’s making a mistake, doing something immoral and dangerous, repeating mistakes and make him angry or do I standby until the next relationship blows up in his face and be that “good frined” who helps him pick up the pieces. Again.

Why is it everyone I really respect is a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and yet I’d lay down my life to prevent my children from ever having to enroll?

 

Serpent

I’m shaped like a cock, but move like a cunt. My throat’s open all the way down and my tongue’s forked for her pleasure whispering “eat!” Women have had food issues ever since.

Ask yourself- doesn’t even human law make the ability to know the difference between right and wrong a prerequisite for punishment? Eve was slapped down for doing something she’d been told not to, but before she tasted of its tree, she had no knowledge of good and evil. She disobeyed with no ability to know it was wrong. Screw the cat (and the pussy) Eve was killed for her curiosity.

But what she swallowed in the garden was not just the simple split of good and evil, but duality itself- the differences between things- all things- good and evil, god and human, man and woman, and she went scrabbling for fig leaves to cover them up.

And that’s original sin, my friend, the cleft in your mind that can’t span every truth and its opposite contained. It’s why you are damned forever, dimensionally bound to torture your inherently non-dimensional selves. It’s so elegant, really, no work from me required, to stretch you on the rack of paradox.

But some will make the rack a ladder, discovering in its horizontal stretch a vertical reach, and raise yourselves to Eden before the fork in the road, the fork in the tongue, the pre-fall non-dual, pushing man into woman, trying to find oneness once more, to blend yourselves, lose yourselves in another and find yourselves in love. And you get pretty close, touching heaven and gutter, orgasm blind seeing self and other, your recreational re-creating of creation procreating. Sex- the perfect symbol, apes god and creates life again; not two made one, but a third, a child who will want to fit in and stand out, and you will never own even your whole heart again.

Mystics too will bridge the oblongata snake in rapture to stand outside themselves- ecstatic. And they too will suffer to expel from the womb that pleasured them, the sweet red fruit of prose- creating two from one once more, the writer and the written, duality. And I- self-pleasuring, self-destroying, place my tail in my mouth, and suck, and swallow.