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Month: May 2016

The Rain Finally Stops

The Rain Finally Stops

She refuses to run in the rain.
She refuses to run in the rain.

So the past few days have sort of been a blur of…well, rain and video games. The combination of the release of the newest DLC for Fallout 4 with some pretty steady rain has led me to grow roots and get stuck in the sofa with a controller in my hand.  I haven’t run with Straxi in days, but that will change soon, hopefully today, honestly, because I have it in my head that we are going to go exploring here, and the rain has held us off from that for quite long enough, thank you.

I had forgotten the trails on campus – or at least I had figured they had fallen victim to the constant and ongoing construction that seems to plague all of NC, even tiny Davidson. When I was a kid (and by “kid” I mean teenager – maybe 14 or so – certainly no older, because by 15 I was out of the house, smoking, and living a decidedly not-healthy lifestyle), I ran semi-regularly, and I biked as well. I remember this time as being predominantly exploration – basically what I do in video games, but in real life.  I would jump on my bike, or put on my shoes (we didn’t have running shoes back then, per se, we were limited to tying rocks to our feet with canvas rope, yes, I’m that old). I think I mostly explored the campus and the town because I was bored? Because I didn’t want to be at home? Because I didn’t want to do homework? Not sure. But I went out and explored not from any desire to be “fit” or to improve my 5k splits or anything crazy like that. I did it just because. This seems like the best reason to do that sort of thing, honestly. I just felt like it.

Occasionally, I took Trixie with me – my first canine running companion, albeit with only three legs, and much shorter than Straxi, but not often. When I went out in the early morning to run, I would let her run with me without a leash, which I thought was awesome, but now it’s impossible. Straxi would be jam in no time flat, and back then, there was literally one traffic light in town and really no need for that, to be honest.

But the trails were something I thought I had discovered, and I felt like they were mine. I stumbled upon them one day out running (which in retrospect is surprising, because that would have been a long distance for me to run, but I guess I really did run a lot, now that I really think on it). I wasn’t running with Trixie, or riding my bike, or listening to music (this was pre-Walkman days, remember). Davidson College had some huge fields on the outskirts of campus, and I wound up there one afternoon. I didn’t plan my runs – I just went. If I saw something interesting at the next turn, I would go that way. If I saw something scary at the next turn, I went the opposite way. Basically, I just sort of wandered.  To a certain extent, I still do that. I have a general idea where I want to go when I head out, and I know what’s a good route to hit if I have Straxi with me or not – I want her to enjoy running with me, and I want us both to be safe, and so our main road is one we want to stay off of. The drivers in this town are downright dangerous and our road has begun to be noisier than I-77, not to mention busier and faster, too.

But none of this was an issue when I ran as a kid. I just ran to run, and to see. I was so incredibly lucky to grow up here, and be able to return to here, and see so much of this town utterly unchanged (and, like the danger of the streets, unfortunately some of it really HAS changed, and drastically, for the worse).

I stumbled onto the trails late one afternoon when I was exploring the big fields behind the college. Maybe I meant to run laps around the fields, or maybe I just meant to run through them, but either way, I remember seeing a path – unmarked – leading into the woods. And yes, they legit were woods at that point, not just a little bit of trees or a bit of park. Of course, I could not leave this unexplored. Just like with my gaming habits, I want to see what’s over that next ridge in the game, or in this case, off the edge of the field.

So into the woods I went. I had no idea where I was. I had no cell phone or GPS (these were the dark days before science, and we all still thought the world was flat, since we couldn’t post photos to Facebook of what we were doing at that exact moment and hope for comments and approval from friends…we lived in scary times, indeed). I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a bit nervous at times during the run – when I say I didn’t know where I was, I mean I truly had moments when all I could do was trust in the trail, knowing that eventually it would end up SOMEWHERE, and I could navigate from that. The somewhere it wound up was a very old, very run down, very wooded cemetery (I later was told that this was a cemetery only for people of color, and I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly would make sense, in that it was small and off the beaten path. Can’t have the help going to their eternal rest with the gentry, after all).

I came out of the woods into this extremely peaceful, beautiful, serene area, and was simultaneously creeped out and intrigued. A cemetery not attached to a church? This was unusual to me – all cemeteries were behind/beside/around churches, in my experience (granted, at that point, what experience I had had was oh, so incredibly limited), so I had to wonder where the church was, what had happened to it, why was this burial area so hidden away?

I understand the politics (or at least, I’m trying to) surrounding the racially based treatment that went on and continues to go on in the South, even as I continue to be surprised at how normal it was to me to grow up next to a cemetery that boasted CSA dead, as I attended a church with a massive monument to the Confederate soldiers and army. I do manage to maintain a fog of “that’s just how things are” that allows me to avoid some of the ugliness of life, honestly, and I know what a huge, enormous, offensive amount of privilege that is. Sometimes I feel like I should be swanning about with a parasol, bathing my skin in buttermilk and eating massive amounts of ham and biscuits before I go to any sort of social gathering so as to be able to avoid gobbling like a hog in front of the gentlemenfolk.

I don’t know if I spent a whole lot more time on the trails surrounding the college after I discovered them – I know that I returned to them a few times, at least, but I also know that my time for unfocused, unintentional discovery was running out at that point (I didn’t know it then – see above paragraph re swanning about). I hope that this summer break allows me the time and freedom to be creative without boundaries, and to take pictures, and write, and stumble across areas I had forgotten or never appreciated in the past.

In Which I am Not

In Which I am Not

briefcase

I’ve run across a pattern here in Goldberg’s book, or at least a pattern for me, one that resonates in me: owning whatever we want in our writing, and then freeing it (31). She expands on this in her chapter “We Are Not the Poem” in ways that ultimately don’t work for me (she applies the discussion to gaining too much recognition for a particular type of writing, and reading that work too often in public – problems I don’t have, and don’t ever anticipate having, to be honest), but where it does work for me is earlier, in her establishing, clarifying discussion of the issue:  “the problem is we think we exist” (34). We think that our words, once we get them down on paper/bits & bytes/whatever, that they are frozen and permanent. This isn’t the case, at all, and as writers we need to remember this (or learn it).

For instance, my first class as an undergraduate was a literature class, and it was one of the really, really basic ones – a good way to start, honestly, and as it dealt with such an array of writers (Langston Hughes and Shakespeare both were represented) it must have been a survey class. Amazing the things that stick in the brain, isn’t it? Anyway, in this class, we discussed “Battle Royal” (a part of the novel, “The Invisible Man”) and much as I would later be frustrated by wondering what exactly was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, I was frustrated mightily by the discussion of the briefcase Ellison’s protagonist receives.

The instructor was a graduate student, working on his thesis (I was SO IMPRESSED by this, that he would just so blithely toss this out, like it was nothing), and I always referred to him has “Mister,” even though he was miles younger than I was at the time. This didn’t feel strange in the least. But I asked him what the meaning for the briefcase was, pointing to a specific line describing the case, wanting more, and specifically wanting the “more” to be an absolute. He responded, “What do YOU think it means?”

This was not helpful to me at all, at the time, I thought. I understood in general terms that the meaning of the briefcase was mutable, and that the instructor wanted me to apply my own critical thinking skills to the reading and my new knowledge about Ralph Ellison and Ellison’s purposes in writing and come to some greater understanding of the briefcase as more than just a leather satchel. Yes, yes, yes, all fine and dandy, good, great, stellar. But what does it MEAN???

You would think that as a child I skipped to the end of a book and read the ending first, but I never did.

The words Ellison wrote in “Battle Royal” that confounded me so much were full of intention, purpose, and meaning, but they weren’t concrete at all. They changed, depending on who was reading them and what personal experiences the reader brought to the reading. That wasn’t what was important, though, and that’s not what is important in my writing either. What’s important is Goldberg’s description of the freeing nature of writing, and “that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write” (34). That moment is what was important for Ellison, I bet. His book, “Invisible Man,” is full of terrible metaphors for how life was for brown folks in his day, and what life was like as a young man trying to make his way in a horribly racist world. I bet there was some power for him in laying all those words down, describing how it was, but not making it so explicit that people were locked in to one reading. Goldberg says that that moment is key, because once you mesh your words and your feelings, “ “you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them” (34). I don’t want to put words in Ellison’s mouth, or his pen, but I do like to imagine that even if he couldn’t be free from the situations that lead to his writing “Invisible Man,” he could at least feel some momentary power just through the articulation.

Goldberg says that there is no permanent truth that can be captured and held in a poem, and I believe her. We, as readers, change all the time, and she, as author, changes along with us, just like we do. The words stay the same, but the meanings they bring with them are constantly changing and shifting. I guess my question becomes whether or not that makes me more or less intimidated by the act of sitting to write?

Poking Garbage

Poking Garbage

I’m continuing my reading and working with Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I’m finding it helpful for me, as a writer (how weird is it to apply that title to myself, even though that’s what I am, and have always been), but also I’m trying to see it through the lens that my students might use. I know that they struggle – as do I – in finding ways to make their writing work for them, and to make it do the things that they plan or envision. Where I think we differ is that I already trust the process, and know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’m going to get at least a reasonably decent bit of writing out of this exercise, eventually.  They don’t have the experience with writing that I do (obviously – that’s what school is for, after all), and my job is to (among other things) offer them opportunities to engage with the process, and develop that trust.

That’s a big part of what Goldberg is discussing when she talks about “composting,” because basically, you’re getting out there and working in the dirt, and not seeing any real improvement, you’re just poking around in the soil. That’s what composting is – it’s bringing air to garbage, bringing important bits together like a recipe, even if you don’t quite see how that’s going to be any good at all later.

Goldberg reminds us that this sort of work takes time, and she offers us a definition of that work as “composting” when she writes that our “senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this ‘composting’” (15).  Trying to write about something before it’s been fully composted is going to get you a bunch of…well, garbage. I tried to write about some life experiences that I knew were important, and that I knew could be useful to other people in my situation, and it was just flat. The words were “thrown-out egg shells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones” without the opportunity that I was able to give myself to think on the whole thing (15).

Obviously, it’s not possible to compost things for your writing only after the experience is done. Some things are things that don’t ever end – you can’t wait to write about them until you’ve navigated the entirety of the experience because that will never happen. The experience continues throughout your life, and at no point will you have time to compost it in its entirety – we do eventually run out the clock, after all. But we can compost the various bits of it, and I think that for me this is important to do. I’ve got to work on seeing My Story as discrete parts that make up the larger whole, but ultimately, it’s not ever going to be done, even when, according to the world, the laws, the people around me, it should no longer affect me. So I can’t compost the whole thing – I can’t save up all the bits forever. If I tried to do that, I’m afraid that I’d wind up hauling this garbage around with me forever, and part of my intention in actually telling My Story is to unload all these damn egg shells, coffee grounds, and smelly garbage.

Another important aspect of the concept of composting is that it answers a concern I have had myself, and have encountered in much of the academic discussion of personal writing: it’s just damn navel gazing, and what good comes of that in academic work? Goldberg addresses that nicely when she writes that her students who are clearly composting “are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into our selves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing” (16).  I see part of my job with my students to be introducing them to new tools they can use in their lives to help them navigate tough decisions, and to help them think in my complex, nuanced ways. Writing helps us to do that, and our first and best area of consideration (we can’t help it, as humans) is always ourselves. I have worried myself that the writing I have my students do is too fluffy for academic vigor, and that it’s not working the muscles they need to develop enough, but Goldberg has connected the dots here for me in a way that I had not considered previously.

Finally, I have to comment about the visual with this page. As you can imagine, if you Google image search for compost, you will get scads of pictures of piles of dirt. You’ll also gets lots of photos of dirt with hands either IN the dirt, or offering the dirt to the viewer. I had to scroll WAAAAAY too far down the page to find a set of brown hands. My privilege astounds me sometimes, and really pisses me off a lot.

Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

As Natalie Goldberg asked me to do in her chapter “Writing as a Practice,” I’m going to sit down right now and give her this moment. What’s running through me?

I’m alone in the house, with just two sleeping pets, and I’m surrounded by calm, and green, and music. I’m writing – a thing I didn’t expect to ever get to do, and haven’t done for myself, in a very long time. I get so caught up in worries about what I’m writing and doing and thinking – what would other people think if they could hear inside my head? I’ve worked for a very long time to shut those voices down (and that’s a large part of what led to my drinking – shutting the Peanut Gallery in my head up). I guess I could track my learning to be concerned with what other people thought about what I was doing to the influence of various people in my life, in the past, but does that really matter? I get caught up in the why, and the fixing of the problem sort of gets shuffled to the background while I try to understand why.

Sometimes we don’t get to understand why. Sometimes we just have to do, and go, and be, and let the why remain an asked question, but be comfortable with no answer, or no answer that we can hear (I believe we get answers more than we realize, but that frequently, they just are outside of our range of hearing).

Am I warmed up now? Am I excited to start? Do I believe I can? Let’s go see.

In Which I Consider Writing as a Practice

In Which I Consider Writing as a Practice

This is the practice school of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run.  It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

(from Writing Down the Bones)

Well, if this isn’t right on for me, I don’t know what is.  A little backstory here…

So I have no classes to teach over the summer – none. Nada. Nothing. Zip. Not by my choice, really, but just the way things worked out with my schools (my father, the alarmist, rang up my sister saying that the family had to be prepared to help me out since I had “lost my job.” Yeah, Dad, that’s not EXACTLY how adjuncting works, but that’s apparently how overreacting works, so it’s all good).

The up side to this is that we are ok financially for me to take off the summer. I have a list of things I want to do over the summer, largest of them being to write.  I have a story I need to tell, and it’s one that’s mine to tell, and no one else’s, and it’s important to me that I tell it, and I own it (I came to understand this after reading this amazing memoir:  Straight Pepper Diet, which I heard about on the Rich Roll podcast). But it’s hard work, writing about something painful, and that made you cry when it was going on, but it’s also good work. My arms and legs and back are sore from the work I did in the yard yesterday (work I did to avoid the work sitting in this damn chair, apparently), so it’s obvious that ALL work makes us hurt, but some types of pain are actually positive – they remind us that we are changing, growing, and effecting our world in some way. I made a mark on my yard, which is good and I can feel it in my body.

So I have this whooooooole long summer (that I realize, no, is not really that long, in the grand scheme of things, but on this side of things, it feels pretty long, especially when I think NO MORE PAYCHECKS), and the main, biggest things I want to do this summer are (1) train for the 10k in September (longest run I have done is a 5k) and (2) write/work on my story. So those are my two goals, and while I haven’t been out of school long (a week maybe?) I have noticed a tendency to do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – to avoid doing the two things I ostensibly WANT to do most of all, since I made them the point of the summer.  Here are the things I did yesterday to avoid writing:

  1. Organize my music on my phone
  2. Organize two cabinets in my kitchen
  3. Play my video game
  4. Take Straxi out
  5. Mow the back yard
  6. Weed the garden

Apparently the way to start writing is to do every possible chore in the world, twice. After you finish, THEN you can sit in front of the computer screen and put bit-pencil to byte-paper. I understand now why good writers have gone to such extremes to ensure that they have uninterrupted time in which to write:  we are really, really good at not writing, and we sure don’t need help from anybody else (I’m looking at you, Straxi) to distract us from our intended daily page count.

I’m thinking that this blog will be a great way for me to limber up before I start off on my “real” writing, because when I actually did write day before yesterday, I found that as I was finishing up, I was really starting to find my cadence.

So far what I’ve written on My Story is really pretty horrible, but it could just be that the material I am working with is really hard for me to work through. I think it’s important for me to do it, though, because it’s MINE, and I want to own it and understand it, inside and out, and also because I don’t want to forget it. It was horrible, but it’s MY horrible, and actually, not all of it was horrible.

So I hope to use this blog as an opportunity to stretch, sort of, before I start training on my story. After, when I have said my piece for the day, I will move to training my body and working on that 10k race. I can use it as a treat, sort of, for me and for Straxi.

My view as I try to work...
My view as I try to work…