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Author: Rhetorica Running

Torn

Torn

Well, I have to say I’m rather torn about the plethora of information I have to make use of as I plan for class. I recently assigned students an investigative report, as part of a larger group of assignments that span the semester (a reflective piece on the topic they chose, with a number of initial sources, followed by an Annotated Bibliography, then the report, and now the argumentative paper). The report helps hammer home the need for careful, thoughtful, and correct reporting of factual information. This assignment also provides the opportunity for me to talk about how important the fourth estate is to our democracy, and also to talk about what can happen when that estate takes an extended lunch break in which multiple alcoholic beverages are consumed.

We talked about Watergate (and I used a great documentary, which resulted in stellar discussion after viewing) and we talked about the likelihood that it could happen again. Well, let’s rephrase. That it IS happening again.

My students were in pretty much 100% agreement that yep, Watergate will happen again. I was unsurprised. What I was surprised about was how very dark in that classroom it becomes when all the students are so engaged with something that their computers go to sleep. I’ve never seen this level of “not asleep” students.  If I were a republican, or associated with Trump, that would scare me a little. These kids are not having it.

But I’m torn about this. I don’t want my students to become jaded and think that this is indeed the norm. None of this is normal. It is not normal for people to chant “Lock her up” at rallies. It’s not normal for people to hold rallies for reelection within days of being sworn in. And it’s not normal for politicians to be willing to ignore foreign groups meddling in our elections. My students have told me, repeatedly, that this was the first election they were able to vote in. I apologize to each one of them when they say this, and assure them that at one time in our country’s history, politics was not such an unbelievable clown car.

I am so excited to have so much information to use to help teach my students about the importance of writing, truth telling, and the fourth estate. I am so incredibly sad to have so much information to use to do this. This is not what I want for my students, or for this country.

Training Program Completed!

Training Program Completed!

So I finished up that 12 week training program at Fleet Feet in Huntersville – it was awesome, excellent, and most helpful. I really enjoyed the structure of it, and the knowledge that there were people expecting me to show up was a real motivator (although I do have to cop to at least two days of failure to appear due to various health related ailments).

Last night was our last run together before our Saturday “goal race.” My goal race is the CPCC Skyline Run, which is just a 5k, but it goes for scholarships, so I love doing that one just for the support of students alone, but it’s also a really fun race to do. I plan to wear my tutu again.

So as we lined up for our last set of drills together, I thought back to my first day doing those damnable drills, and how I just knew I had gotten myself into something heavier than I could manage. The drills were easy now – or at least they weren’t the workout that they were when I began, and I felt so proud of myself for being able to stick with something to the end. I not only stuck with it until the end, but I stuck with it until I saw an improvement.

I got so much out of this experience, I really do want to sign up for another one – however, the conversation surrounding the next program made it sound pretty horrible:  all speed drills at the track, in the summer. Yeah, gonna have to think long and hard about that one. But I really did enjoy doing the drills we did, and I would love to get faster.

Hassan Probably Had a Sand Maze

Hassan Probably Had a Sand Maze

I’m floored by how affected I am by listening to the newest installment of podcast brilliance (“S-Town“) by the folks who did “Serial.” I listened to “Serial” as I drove to and from a less than exciting semester of classes – I spent a lot of time driving that semester, I was somewhat unhappy about various things (not just work), and so I spent a lot of time attempting to soothe myself through the use of enormous amounts of junk food. “Serial” was a great distractor – I was less interested in stopping for donuts on the way home when I was able to listen to a new episode and see whether or not there was actually a pay phone in the entrance of that Best Buy or not.

But the compulsion I felt to find out more and more about the killing of Hae Min Lee is mere curiosity compared with the impossibility of putting down the tale of John B. McLemore and his incredibly precise rants, his brilliantly described disgust, and his kindness to others (or is it masochism? By the end, I wasn’t sure which it was, honestly). I know more about clocks now, I have been reminded of the young men I knew who sounded just like John (although stupid – always stupid, never brilliant like him), and I’m not sure what world I inhabit now. I am familiar with John’s world, in that I live in the South and I found John’s accent and cadence of speaking to be both insanely over the top but simultaneously familar, nostalgic and thus rather soothing. Even during his most epic rant, I felt I was on fairly familiar ground, but it was ground that felt familiar the way a dream feels familiar if you have it more than once – sort of ephemerally familiar if that makes any sense at all.

The gothic quality of this story is familiar to any of us who have grown up in the South, with a stereotypically southern upbringing. While I didn’t have an Uncle Jimmy to act as my hype man, we all have at least one slightly eccentric or somewhat damaged relative who can cause public outings to be a little awkward or embarrassing. I didn’t have an extended family myself, but I sure did adopt a family or two that wasn’t my own. And each of them had an Uncle Jimmy or a close facsimile thereto.

And truly, I felt about as Faulknerian as it is possible to feel (at least whilst also being sober) when I visited a family cemetery where numerous relatives were buried, as was my grandaddy’s right arm. Not all of him, mind, just his arm. I sent a picture of the headstone (armstone?) to my sister, who at the time happened to be visiting with one of our family’s adopted members – funny how that seems to be a thread among certain types of families. I wondered when Col. Sartoris was going to show up and beat me for being giddy in a graveyard.

S-Town is a live-action Flannery O’Connor tale, if she and Faulkner ever had a Frankensteinian love child. It’s haunting, and sad, and it’s so very human.

 

Community

Community

I’ve never really run with a group. I have a vague memory of attempting to be part of the cross country team while in middle school and epically failing at it, and as I’ve aged, I haven’t done any better at developing a community around me. I saw an advertisement at a specialty running shop for training groups and dismissed it out of hand. First of all, I can do this all alone, thank you very much. I don’t need to pay someone else for this. Also, I’m too slow. I’ll hold everyone back. Finally, they’ll all know each other and I won’t know anyone, and who wants to go back to high school anyway??

Look, I never said it made sense. The brain is a strange creature.

Training group cycles came and went at Fleet Feet, and I continued not to join in. Finally, I went in for a new running bra or something, and picked up a flyer. The dude behind the counter answered all my questions and before I knew it, I was seriously considering joining up. Notice I’m still not ready to commit to something as basic as a running group, or as easy. I have commitment issues apparently.

So I go to the first workout and struggle. I mean, I really, really struggle. I’m not used to running with other people, I’m not used to running at night, and I’m not used to talking about my workout. I was fully and completely outside my comfort zone. And that’s not even taking into account the discomfort inherent in running itself, right?

This was maybe two months ago (mid-January) and yesterday I got to run 8 miles with my friends in the running group. We shared our energy chews, encouraged each other, watched each others’ backs, and cheered on the unofficial mascot (Pressley is her name – she’s a doodle of some description – very tall and leggy. She could be a model).

As an aside, I believe that Straxi could perform mascot duties alongside Pressley (apparently the duties largely consist of patiently sitting and waiting while we warm up, then trotting at Joe’s side until time to stop and poop, then resuming trotting by his side) and I’m shooting for getting Straxi to the point where she can be a part of a group like this, too. Oddly enough, I seem to have passed my inability to engage with others socially on to my dog. And all she has to do to get to know someone is sniff their butt. It’s not like she has to make sparkling conversation or anything.

My dog is not a social butterfly.

I’m so excited that I was able to do this – running that far is a first for me, and running with a group is now becoming a real treat as opposed to something I actively avoid. I love running on my own with Straxi, but at the same time, having people to run with (my own pack, as it were) is awesome.

I regularly read (and listen to) Ali on the Run, and she has talked on her blog and podcast a great deal about the November Project.  I wish we had a tribe here, because I think this is something I could really get into and enjoy. Plus, the summer gets ass hot and that’s just as bad as being super cold and I always need motivation to get out there and work. I’m not going to start a tribe on my own, though. I know I don’t have the staying power to establish a set schedule like that and stick to it – having other people depend on me at work and at home is enough. I don’t want to get that sort of crap into my exercise life, too.

I feel really protective of my running, now, in a way I didn’t before. I have multiple things I’m doing to make sure that I improve my running as much as I can (I’m seeing a sports-oriented chiropractor and a nutritionist, among other things), and I am careful about cross training to avoid injury but still improve my cardio ability, blah blah blah, the same stuff we hear and read all the time. But my running seems like it’s just so much in its infancy, I’m afraid that anything I do is going to knock it off its stride, if you’ll pardon the really bad pun.

But this is about improving, which is at its core, about change – what we were yesterday is no longer enough and we want to build on it and make it even better. So I’m trying to blow on the little spark, and keep it alive, even when I have really hard runs, or runs that aren’t really that great. I have never had a bad run, now that I think about it. I think that’s a good sign.

 

Green Inside, Green Outside

Green Inside, Green Outside

The first time I gave more than a passing thought to what was actually behind the plastic wrap and on the Styrofoam trays in the meat section of the grocery store, I was a thirty-something mother, recently returned to college to complete my bachelor’s degree. I had lucked out and gotten into a history class with the best professor I had ever encountered, and his classes consisted of him strolling in, jotting some notes on the board, and then talking off the cuff (it seemed to me) for 50 minutes while I struggled to write down every word that fell from his lips. Dr. Hunt was brilliant.

During one of these encounters, he used a video clip in class (and this was in the days before YouTube, before the advent, really, of the internet as a far-reaching influence) and as he popped the VHS cassette into the VCR, I continued my frantic scribbling.

I stopped, though, when I realized what was taking place on the screen – it was a video about chickens, and the only thing I remember about it was the conveyor belt they were on, the little chicks, and the fact that part of their beaks were being snipped off for “safety” reasons. I thought to myself that they would likely be much safer if they were outside, doing whatever chickens did, rather than being transported via conveyor belt to whatever unpleasant experience awaited them. I was horrified to further learn that the male chicks were killed, since they could never lay eggs or produce anything.

This clip had a profound effect on me, and so began my journey into attempting to eat in a way that was in step with what I felt was right. I had never thought about food or eating in moral terms, other than the typical, “I shouldn’t eat this because it will make me fat.” That’s a considerably different moral stance from “I shouldn’t eat this because it used to have a face.”

My kids refused to follow me down the path of the meat-free existence I was trying to forge for myself and my family; I think it had more to do with fear of tofu than anything else. I was not a courageous cook, and so I bought a lot of Boca burgers and beans. I slipped TVP into the chili I made and didn’t tell the kids – I still occasionally gloat about that to this day. A vegetarian meal without complaining from the kids:  a win for me, and blessed, blessed silence with freedom from having to justify my choices for just one meal.

Once the kids were moved out, I attempted to return to a vegetarian lifestyle a few times, ultimately with poor results.  Much of my lifestyle was unhealthy, and the decisions I was making regularly in other areas of my life could not be offset just by eating a few salads.

A slow approach seems to be what worked for me, in that I began probably 6 years ago to move towards a more Paleo approach to eating. I managed to taper off the really unhealthy foods, and junk food of the non-vegetarian as well as vegetarian sort began making fewer appearances in my daily life. I watched a few more movies relating to healthy eating, and bought the diet book written by the fireman – Engine 2 – and watched his film as well. My husband and I ate a largely vegetarian/vegan diet, but I still was not losing the weight I wanted, nor was I feeling as healthy as I thought I “should” because of my virtuous eating.

Around this time I also attempted to create smoothies for myself and my family, with one memorable attempt being at the beach during a vacation, when I failed most epically to create something even close to palatable. My mother’s pained expression upon trying a bit of my concoction haunts me to this day.

I went from Paleo, to vegetarian, and then discovered a nearly fully meat based diet, which was low carb and introduced the concept of ketosis to me – those of you who lived through the Atkins craze(s) know how seductive the thinking can be. Ultimately, the keto diet I followed allowed me to finally break free from my attachment to white flour and sugar. I still found myself binging on doughnuts, cake, and cookies during particularly stressful times in my life, but I was largely ok.

Until I wasn’t.

One day, after listening to a podcast by Rich Roll, an endurance athlete who advocates for and follows a plant-based lifestyle, I suggested a meat-free day to my husband. He was enthusiastic, and so we ate a largely plant based diet that day. The next day, when we got up and discussed breakfast, we decided to do it again. Then again. I’m not sure when that was, to be honest, so I can’t say “I went to a plant-based diet on X date,” because it was so…well, understated.

And it felt really natural, and positive, and most importantly, like how I was supposed to be living. I have become much more courageous when it comes to food and cooking now (I know how to make kale chips!) although I still regularly encounter things in the beautiful produce sections of the grocery store that I simply cannot fathom how one would use in a recipe.

Now I feel much more balanced – the food choices I make to fuel my body are in step with the morals I have for the rest of my life, and I am rejoicing my return to all things green.

Green is everywhere in my world now, and I love it. My life during my years in Texas (those long and frustrating meat-filled years) was brown, drab, hot, and awful. In contrast, my life now is vibrant, green, and feels right. There is no conflict in what I think is the right way to consume and the choices I make in the kitchen.

I can see my smoothie as more than just a pumped up milkshake: it’s fuel for me, and it bears no resemblance to the smoothies I made years ago. It’s green, for one thing, and it’s actually healthy, rather than just masquerading as healthy. I feel closer to the world around me, as I run on the trails near my house with Straxi – the plants growing around the path might represent food, but the animals I encounter most definitely do not. I am brave enough to put kale AND jalopenos in my smoothie at breakfast, and I love it.

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Fire Extinguisher

Fire Extinguisher

tumblr_o8xrcr0DaD1u8zsmfo1_400So part of my summer vacation was intended to be work on how I can best recharge my batteries during the semester. I do a very, very bad job of self-care, I think, and am in a constant state of forgetting that if I do not do at least the bare minimum of self-care daily, I am in actuality doing a detriment to not just me but my students. I have to remember the old “put the oxygen on yourself first” adage – I can’t do for others if I am not at my prime ability.

I realized at some point over the last few weeks that I had no idea as to what self-care actually meant. Does that mean doing what you feel like doing at a particular given time? Does it mean doing stuff that doesn’t necessarily seem “fun” but that you know needs to be done? That makes it sound less like a soul-recharging task and more like, well, a Pap smear or trip to the dentist.

So I turned to Dr. Googles and looked it up (exactly what I exhort my students, my father, my son, anyone who asks me to educate them on something without having done the bare minimum of work themselves to do). I was surprised to see that self-care is a little more specific and real than I had understood previously. Before I searched, when I heard the term “self-care,” I envisioned things like long days of video gaming, maybe a hot bath, reading…essentially all the things my Type A mind considers to be “goofing off.” But those things don’t necessarily replenish my batteries in the way that I am looking for. Yes, all those things are good for me, in moderation. When I video game, I am able to release some aggression, do some creative work, and leave my day-to-day world for a bit. When I read or soak in the tub, it’s another way for me to block the “real world” for a while, which I find very important and something that I need, rather than just like. The trouble comes if I do it too much, or with non-revitalizing mediums (spending too much time on Reddit is a real problem for me, and it’s not healthy in the slightest).

So that’s how I understood self-care:  essentially having cotton candy for dinner, you know? This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Here’s how Dr. Googles explained it at the top of the search:  “In health care, self care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated. Some place self care on a continuum with health care providers at the opposite end to self care.”  This was singularly unhelpful for me insofar as figuring out how exactly to do this self-care business for myself. What it did do for me was help me understand that this is a more substantive thing than just “goofing off.”

I found loads of helpful writing on self-care, including the frequent exhortations to get outside, into nature, around some green stuff, and to think about and reflect on the beauty around you. This is something that I do regularly when I run (unless I’m on the treadmill, and I really dislike running on the treadmill, honestly, but when it’s hot as Satan’s testicles outside, I don’t have much of a choice). I love spending time at Fisher Farm, with Straxi, running or walking, taking pictures, or just looking at how beautiful the world is. When I’m running in town, I’m overwhelmed frequently by how fortunate I am to live in a town that is as soothing and beautiful as Davidson is. I feel so terrible for people who are not surrounded by the beauty that I am so lucky to experience, and I include that in my gratitudes every time I consider them. Just the ability to look around and see thriving nature is a boon, and being able to go outside and interact with that beauty is a recharge for me. Those folks who can’t see that beauty because of poverty or other social/class factors are poor in ways that exceed financial ways, I think – even the wealthiest of the world who are unable to appreciate what they have are included in my understanding of poverty. Of course, that’s a completely different discussion, but financial poverty is a form of violence, imo.

I recognize that I have a great deal of privilege in being able to live where I live, do what I do, and exist the way that I exist. Whatever quirks my life has and that the world tosses at me (like a bouquet or a hand grenade), I am still so incredibly fortunate.

But I seem to have wandered a bit from my discussion of self-care. I ran across this Atlantic piece, “The Internet Wants to Help You Take Care of Yourself,” and was…well, stunned, honestly, at how succinctly the author has related my own experiences with thinking about and attempting self-care.

The author, Julie Beck, opens her article by describing the self-care tag on Tumblr as being similar to coming in from the rain and being offered a towel and umbrella when you didn’t realize you were drenched. I spent some time flipping through the posts (I have very little experience with Tumblr) and gasped when I ran across the one I have featured here – it captures my own struggle here with this concept really well.

The author shares a link (I have basically bookmarked the essay, the links in the essay, and have spent some time with all of it just as I am trying to write this) in which the user is guided through a checklist of things to think about when trying to establish why she might feel bad (“You Feel Like Shit”). For someone like me, without an active group of friends (okay, okay, without any friends) upon which to call when having a shit day, this is very similar to what I remember of sitting down with Courtney and saying, “Yeah, I am having a hard time.” It’s like the internet equivalent of a cup of coffee with a friend. This is alternately cool and depressing to me. I ran through the initial part of the flow chart and was reminded to take my meds as I was doing it (Thanks InternetFriend!).

Towards the end of the article, the author discusses whether or not we really are discussing this self-care concept more, or if it’s just a trick of the eye. She writes that she believes “that there’s a growing acknowledgement of the fact that there’s little about modern society that prioritizes, encourages, or facilitates caring for yourself or treating yourself well. It’s all, ‘Buy more things!’ ‘Work harder and at any hour of the day!’ ‘Click back and forth uselessly between the same five websites and call it leisure!’” This is where my own (mis)understanding of self-care comes in. Basically, I had conflated consumption and self-care.

Self-care is a task that is intended to make me stronger, better, more capable of finding and nurturing the me I need to become. Whether I need to become that me for the purpose of being of better service to others, or just to be of better service to myself, or a little of both is immaterial. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all try to understand who our best selves are, and to make those best selves a reality (other than the obvious ones – it’s hard to do anything outside of survive when survival is a real question). I’m finding as I research this that self-care for women can have a political and activist aspect to it as well – we aren’t encouraged to care for ourselves at all. We are, actually, encouraged to do the very opposite:  to engulf ourselves in flame, use our self as tinder and fuel for a flame intended to benefit others.

Self-care is not multi tasking.

Self-care is a radical act for a woman, especially a woman of color.

Self-care is not accessible by everyone, regardless of what we might think.

Self-care is one of the most important things we can do for other people.

Self-care is the most important thing we can do for ourselves.

Self-care is made up of both large and small actions, and is not always comfortable.

Self-care is daily gratitude, daily affirmations, and specific goals that I can reach.

I am worth the time and effort that self-care takes. I am not kindling for someone else’s warmth.

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.