Monday, December 30, 2013

Fimbulvetre: A Norse Mythology Approach to Self-Improvement

Norse mythology doesn’t mess around when it comes to Winter. 

When Norse mythology does Winter, it’s called Fimbulvetre, an apocalyptic weather event ending almost all life on earth. Translated, Fimbulvetre means a “great, big, awful winter” that essentially clutter clears the world so thoroughly that nothing is the same after. 

I like the way the Norse do things. Sometimes, a full-scale Fimbulvetre is long overdue.

What Winter really looks like where I live.
I don’t mean that literally.  I live in the Central Valley of California, where we panic when the temperature dips below forty degrees Fahrenheit.  I would probably last three minutes in an actual awful Winter, but as a metaphor I find Fimbulvetre useful while looking back on the past few months. 

I am a full time teacher, writer, a wife, and a mother of two daughters.  This past fall I wedged a Masters in Education program into my schedule.  I suddenly found that I didn’t have the energy for the stuff, people and habits that didn’t nourish my family and me.  Like a deciduous tree in Winter, I shed dead leaves and pooled my resources to the inner core.

Fimbulvetre is about clearing away the non-essential. It’s not about trying to solve problems through compromise. Fimbulvetre is about getting honest about what isn’t working and letting it go without equivocation.

In my own personal Fimbulvetre this past year, I forced myself to be honest with a few people who were hurting my family and me with their actions and words. It was a relief to get back the energy that I had been wasting on disappointment and anger. 

On a physical level, I stopped eating refined sugar. I stopped bothering with moderation.  I faced the fact that sugar is a problem for me in my diet and I dropped it altogether. My joints stopped aching and I lost enough weight that I liked how I looked in jeans again.

I got rid of some pieces of furniture in my house that I hated and cleared the spare room altogether. Rather than fill it with new things, I put down a throw rug and turned it into a yoga room.

My third grade daughter had been coming home from school depressed by a culture of relentless testing and mean girl social dynamics. When it became clear that nothing was going to change, my husband and I went Fimbulvetre on the whole issue. We left the school and parish that had been our community for eight years and found Waldorf education, which suited our little girl much, much better.

Fimbulvetre as a problem-solving approach has been a life-changer.  Facing a new year, my family and I have never felt stronger and happier.  We have never felt like more of a beautifully working team.

Not every year can be a Fimbulvetre year, but clearing out what wasn’t working with a Norse-like, no mercy approach has helped me to cultivate presence and awareness in all aspects of my life. It has allowed me the energy to focus on the essential and the true for myself and for my family. 

In true Fimbulvetre form, nothing will be the same in the aftermath. I will emerge from the great and awful Winter strengthened at the roots, prepared to grow wildly in the warmth of the coming Spring.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

She's On To Us (for my Sophomore English students)

“She’s on to us.”
            The classroom of tenth graders shifted uneasily in their seats.  Not enough so you would notice, or anyone would notice just casually walking by the open classroom door.  In fact, anyone walking by would think Miss Salt was a teacher who knew her stuff better than most.  She wasn’t exciting exactly, but she didn’t put you to sleep instantly.  The students were amused by her daily attempts to make learning fun.  It wasn’t always fun but the attempts were amusing.  This was a teacher who read stories aloud in funny accents and who wasn’t afraid to tell a joke or two in the middle of a grammar exercise. The jokes weren't funny but at least they were something to break the monotony.
            Jaret’s wings shook under his wrestling jacket, fluttering against the fabric with a light rustle. 
            Miss Salt was the kind of teacher who told parents on Back to School Night that she was so grateful to the parents for having such wonderful children.  This was the kind of teacher who let you turn your work in a day or two late if you were up past midnight texting your boyfriend or playing video games.  This was the kind of teacher who didn’t write up dress code violations for your black striped hoodie.  This was the kind of teacher who didn’t give you detention for listening to your headphones in class.
            A spark flew out of Maddie’s finger.  She put her hand in her pocket to snub it out.  Today something was up. 
            “I tell you, she knows,” Elijah said.  Morgan shook her head. 
            “Impossible,” she said.
            “She knows something,” Brayden whispered.  He mixed his breakfast potion into his faery water and stirred it with his mind like he always did but then he stopped. Looked up.  There she was, watching him.  He took up the bottle and shook it, smiling like an innocent human boy.
            Kat arranged her hair over her pointy ears.  Jack lifted his hoodie over his. 
            The room went silent.
            “You know, I was going to talk about grammar today,” Miss Salt said.  “But I have changed my mind.  Today we are going to talk about something real. Something that you should all be aware of.  I mean, I know you think I don’t know, but I do know.  I know what you all are.”
            “No human can know about us,” Roman said under his breath to Robert.  “We’re going to have to take her out right here.”
            “No, not Miss Salt!” Robert said, though he knew Roman spoke the truth. 
            “No mercy,” said Terise.  “We have to think of our own safety.”
            The plan to mainstream into human society usually worked, but once in a while there would be one human who messed up the plan.  One who knew too much.  Maybe there was a little bit of Faery Tale Creature in Miss Salt too, who knew?  Maybe there was a great grandmother who was a witch or a great uncle werewolf.  Perhaps she had a bit of the faerie dust herself through her veins.  Whatever, it wasn’t enough to save her.  She was human enough to put them at risk.
            The students were not old enough to remember the great faery massacres of the late sixties when groups of faery tale creatures made the mistake of thinking the hippies and flower children would be trustworthy friends.  They were certainly not old enough to have personal experience with the horrible faery smushing that occurred all over England and America in the early twentieth century when little girls all over took up the hobby of pressing faeries into the pages of books like dried flowers.  But their parents and grandparents and great grandparents knew.  The students had been brought up with the warnings since their infancy.  Do not let the humans know what you are.  And if one does see you and realize, kill her immediately.
            “I know what you are,” Miss Salt says.  “I see you.  You think I don’t see you?  You think I don’t see the dust you leave on the floor, glittering like moonlight?  The ways your jackets bulk up behind you to hide your wings?  You think I don’t see that you are made of magic? You're a bunch of Faery Tale Creatures, every last one of you.”
            The class sighed collectively in regret and a tinge of sadness.  They were sorry about what they had to do.  They were so very sorry.
            Hunter stood up.  Megan and Megan blocked the door.  Darien cracked his knuckles.  They would make it quick.  She would not have to suffer.
            Miss Salt took a step back towards the cupboard.  “What’s going on?” she asked.
            “Just be still,” said Von.
            “It won’t hurt a bit,” said Eric.
            "No," Miss Salt said.  "But this will."
            Miss Salt reached into the cupboard and whipped out a giant, shimmering sack.  She snapped it out and it billowed, smelling of bad children and the terror of a thousand captured faery tale creatures.  It fell over the heads of the students and their wings and pointed ears and fire fingers and magical powers all crashed into one another.  Everything went dark as Miss Salt cinched the sack closed on the wails of protest from her tenth grade class.
            Krampus came to the door then, his saucy hooves tick tacking against the floor.  She passed the bag along to him.
            “Thanks Babe,” he said.  “You know they taste better when they’re FTCs.”
            “Spare me the details” Miss Salt said.  “Just pick me up at 8 and take me somewhere nice for dinner.”
            Miss Salt watched him go and then sat at her desk.  She had some papers to correct and she hated to get behind in her work.  

Monday, December 9, 2013


This is what I said at the prayer service at Christian Brothers High School:

When my youngest daughter was small, I taught her not to interrupt.  If she had something to say to me while I was talking to an adult, she had to put a patient hand on my arm and wait in silence until I could give her the full light of my attention.  This is a really hard thing for a kid to do, and she wasn’t always patient, but she did it with full faith that her needs would be met.  She only had to wait.

Waiting isn’t easy for little kids.  Frankly it isn’t easy for any of us. Nobody likes being told to wait, especially in this time in human history when we don’t have to wait for much.  When I was your age, now brace yourselves, I had to go to an actual library to look something up if I wanted to do research.  What a wonderful time this is to be a student!  Now when you want to know something, you have millions of texts available at your fingertips. The whole world is available to you and who needs a patient hand when you can access it immediately whenever you want?  This is a powerful tool for knowledge and connection and the world is already a better place for it.

Yet waiting still has an important place in the human condition. One of the things I love most about our faith is the tradition of seasons, holidays, and special time out to reflect and pray.  Advent is awesome and I’m telling you this because in very few other places in life are you going to hear that it’s okay to be still a minute and wait.

Learning to wait is very important.

For example, if you look out at a field in winter with an untrained eye, you might think it’s just a bunch of dead and muddy dirt.  There is nothing growing above the surface. It’s all chaos and immaturity.  But the gardener who loves the land looks at that field and knows that fallow times are necessary for the growth of healthy crops.  The gardener who loves the land looks at that field and knows that just below the surface, seeds are germinating, bulbs are resting, the soil itself is waiting and rejuvenating for the time when the days grow longer and it will sprout green again.  Without the resting and waiting time, the rows become exhausted and will refuse to grow anything but weeds.

If you look back in our own American history, we’ve experienced times of waiting that on the surface looked bleak.  We are often taught in school that the Civil Rights Movement in this country began with Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on a bus, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a boycott that resulted in a chain of events leading to freedom and equity for all.  These events did occur and these famous names are great heroes in our American narrative, but did you know that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a very young man younger than you, he was riding a bus with his teacher on the way home from a speech and elocution contest where he won first prize?  And did you know that on that long bus ride, even after he had achieved so much through study and hard work and integrity, he and his teacher were forced to stand in order to give able bodied white passengers their seats?  It would be many years to wait before young Martin would take an even greater seat as Reverend of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and lead that boycott and make that famous speech at Washington Monument.

And did you know that all during those years when Martin was a child, the pastor who preceded him at that church, a man by the name of Dr. Vernon Johns, the grandson of slaves, was pushing for social change, giving galvanizing sermons from the pulpit, selling fresh produce outside the church after services to nourish his community? Vernon Johns was waiting, preparing his people to fight for the bright at the end of the long unlit tunnel of oppression.  When Dr. Vernon Johns stepped down to make way for the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the seeds were already planted.  The wait for civil rights for all Americans was too long by an eternity, but during that wait, whole communities full of people like Dr. Vernon Johns and many others were preparing, waiting, acting, praying and having faith that their work would burst into full bloom and chase away the night.

Joseph and Mary faced an oppressive government in their own time.  Just think of that young couple, poor, roaming the land on a donkey, looking for a place to stay.  Moms out there, you know how uncomfortable that must have been, nine months pregnant on the back of a donkey. They did not give up, but set about the quiet work of preparation, in the fullness of their expectation of the light that was about to come. They knew the whole time that they were deeply loved as the whole world waited in quiet preparation for the birth of the Baby that would be our Lord and Brother, and Who would teach us all how to live and love in the light for eternity.

If we want to know more about it, we don’t need to charge up anything but Scripture. According to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter Three, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

So we wait.

Maybe you are thinking, that’s nice Wanket.  What does that have to do with me?

We your teachers look at you, our beautiful, wonderful students. And what to some might look like chaos and immaturity looks to us like process and preparation.  So much of what we are engaged in here at CB is one big long advent, a waiting period, a process of learning and preparation and deep and quiet study while you become who you are, and while you decide what kind of man or woman you are going to be in the light of our God. 

What can you do to honor this season of Advent? 

You can do your reading and your homework.  Actual reading and homework. Education, in the words of my colleague Mr. Delgado, is not the point.  It is the process. Allow yourself the dignity of quiet, contemplative and deep study of the material of your education.

You can work for social justice.  Actual work. Allow yourself to be a part of the sacred preparation for the light of a family who needs food, a child who needs a book, a community that needs healing. 

You can pray.  Actually pray.  Allow yourself the joy of a deep friendship with a God who loves you and wants to be allowed into your heart more than anything.

You can listen.  Actually listen.  Allow yourself to read the Scriptures, to sit in meditation, to listen for the voice of God in your life.

You can wait with a patient hand, waiting through the long night for the light that is surely coming, waiting in the knowledge that you are deeply, and truly loved.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ten Deep Thoughts on Labor Day

  • I got my first job when I was eleven years old.  I taught swim lessons at the local public pool for two dollars an hour.  I have worked almost every summer of my life since then. 
  • Only teachers think working over the summer is a thing to write about in a blog.
  • Jobs I’ve had: swimming instructor, babysitter, hardware store cashier, telemarketer, telephone operator, substitute teacher, elementary school teacher, high school teacher, adult school teacher, food service worker, warehouse inventory taker, laundry and dry cleaning worker, lifeguard, publicity writer.
  • I was almost killed at work at the Ace Hardware in Santa Cruz during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Though a big oak desk saved me, the people working next door at the coffee roasters were struck by falling beams and died.  All they were trying to do that day was make a living. They were kind and friendly and I think about them every day as a reminder for just about everything.
  • The best job: teaching.
  • The worst job: dry-cleaning but mostly because the boss who ran the operation was a weirdo who made racist comments about the non-English speaking fellow who did the steam pressing.
  •  Any job can be hell if the people in charge are corrupt. The luxury of work that is fulfilling is just that, a luxury.  Most people in the world aren't so lucky. Dignity and fairness in the workplace are human rights integral to a true democracy.
  • I took two yoga classes this Labor Day weekend with Sukhbir Kaur, Nirinjan Kaur and Gina Garcia, teachers who expressed that there was nowhere else they would rather be in that moment than sharing their knowledge with their students.  They were enthusiastic, generous, patient and funny. I will be blessed by their challenge to be better and more loving for the rest of my week.
  • Good teachers remind me that labor is a creative gift.  My work with students, stories, my own teachers, children and home is where Holy Spirit flows through my life.  Good teachers remind me to express my joy to my students so that they know that teaching them is my privilege.  In the same way, having a home to tend, children to look after and stories to write are all evidence of Spirit at work and I am so, so grateful.
  • Nonetheless, three-day weekends off work are nice.

I don't know who took this picture but this is where I used to work.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Cast of Characters

In Carolyn See's marvelous book Making a Literary Life, she talks about a cast of characters that has inspired her throughout her writing career.  This was a brief list of people who stuck in her head and demanded to be figured out in her work.

As I enter the dreaded middle of my current novel, I think of my own cast.  Some are people I never even met personally.  Some aren't people.  Here goes:

1. My indifferent education.  Was anyone educated properly in the seventies and eighties?  My writing group friends and I discussed the question last time we met and the consensus around the kitchen table was probably not.  Twelve years spent under the radar meant twelve years of observation and writing practice and the kind of grinding boredom that forces you to cannibalize your own brain for some kind of nourishment. The sense of rattling around in a machine that doesn't know I'm there recurs in almost everything I write.

2.  Dani. There were a group of hippies at my college who weren't students.  They were vagabonds who slept in actual students' rooms and ate their food.  At the center was Dani.  This girl was skinny and had surfer blond hair and tan skin.  She wore long skirts and a satin robe with a dragon embroidered on the back.  She was the polar opposite of me in every particular and though I barely noticed her for the few weeks she hung around my dorm, I've been obsessed with her in the twenty-five years hence.

3. The street musician playing the Chapman stick and the girl with the blue hair.  When I was 15 my family took my New Yorker cousins sightseeing around San Francisco.  Near Ghirardelli Square I broke from the group to follow music echoing off the bricks.  Down a stairwell a dude sat alone on a stool playing this long-necked guitar thing and it sounded like everything I wanted in life. I'd seen a girl earlier that day just a few years older than me who had perfectly dyed blue hair.  It was an ombre effect, starting with navy at the roots and lightening to firecracker popsicle light blue at the ends. I bought a cassette from the man and have played it nonstop for the past twenty-eight years grasping at that perfect blue even though it always pops before I can touch it.

4. My husband.  The notion of a truly good, strong man.  The notion of a person with bottomless integrity.  The notion of the redemption that is possible with romantic love.

5. Randy.  The worst kid I ever taught.  He was nine years old and the whole school was terrified of him.  I've never met a more violent human being.  He was unbelievably fast. He could lay a kid flat and bleeding on the ground while you stood there.  Other teachers avoided him in the halls.  The entire class begged to be allowed to stay inside during recess to avoid being on the schoolyard with him.  He threatened to kill me every day. His last words to me were "I ain't trippin'."  I never taught him how to read.

6. Vietnam Veterans my friend's dad knew. In sixth grade, my friend's ex-military dad took us to a meeting of other Vietnam Veterans. These men suffered PTSD that prevented them from simple things such as enjoying the fair with their kids to being able to hold down a job.  Listening to grown men weep as they mourned fallen friends and their own broken lives stuck with me forever.

These people and situations keep coming up in different forms in most of my stories.  There are more than I've listed here, but this is a start. If you are a writer or artist, what are your characters that keep coming up in your work?  What human puzzles are you figuring out in your stories? 

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I love Back-To-School everything.  I love the sales on erasers, decorations with apples on them, new notebooks.  My God, new notebooks.

I love the smell of sharpened pencils. My classroom is all set up with paper on the bulletin boards, brand new maps on the walls, everything clean and ready. The desks wait empty in their hopeful rows.

This year at my school we are setting up an ipad system.  All of the students will have one, as well as a special Facebook-like media site where we will all communicate.  It will be an organizational hoopla.  There won’t be need for much paper, or many pencils.

I like ipads and even if I didn’t, this is all happening. Whatever, I’m down. At one point pencils were a new technology, and they were far better than etching out sums on the back of shovels with pieces of coal.

Screens don’t smell like anything, however, and that’s a drawback no one talks about.  I love the smell of books and the feel of paper stacked thick in a binder. It’s so cool and smooth. I love doodles in margins and the notebook covers of students who love to draw and I love the sounds of pages turning.

Mr. Sketch markers, Sharpies, new backpacks, fresh uniforms, clean shoes, haircuts.

I love the August issue of Seventeen and the September issue of Vogue.  I love corduroys even though I hate to wear them and I love wool and sweaters even though it will be six months before it isn’t ninety-nine degrees outside.  For Back-To-School you iron your shirts and wear stockings and skirts and wine colored lipstick and rust colored nail polish.  You shuffle through red and orange leaves and wave pennants at football games and swear to yourself that you are making a fresh start.   

And you might make a fresh start. It’s all possible during Back-To-School, the witching season when you find out how much you’ve grown over the summer. When you find out if you’ve changed as much as you think you have.

Maybe you have.  Maybe everything is possible now.  This is my twentieth Back-To-School time.  I know the magic of a fresh pencil.  I know the promises made between the students in the rows and the teacher in the front. We say so many things we think we mean. We are so pure, so grandiose, so full of hot air.  But Back-To-School says that this year the dreams of students and their teachers will all be manifested. Back-To-School says that education equals freedom and this year we will be freer than we've ever been.
Palomino Blackwings, the best pencils ever.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Life In Exercise

* I started swimming lessons when I was 5.  I loved swimming. My parents took us wonderful places for long swimming picnic days and when it was time to leave I would hide underwater and hope that my mom would give up looking for me and leave me there to live.

* Dance classes began when I was 7. Tap, jazz and ballet, culminating in snazzy satiny recitals in June. I begged my mom to move the car out of the garage so I could spend hours in the stink and dust practicing my steps and choreographing my own dances.

*  Swim team from 9 until I aged out at 14, which included getting to practice at 7 in the mornings all summer long. I never missed a practice but I was still the slowest girl at all the meets. I had endurance. I killed the mile swim fundraisers because people didn't believe someone as short and slow as me could do it so they always pledged per lap. 

* Throughout college: swimming, hiking, going to the gym, biking along the sea cliff road, running, dancing.

* Early twenties: Triathlons. Road races.  I was always came in second to the last but I did not care. I felt invincible.

* Pregnancies: Gyms. Long walks.  Afterwards, lots of jump roping, cross-country skiing, Nordic track, African dance.

* Gyms: Muscle gyms, family gyms, neighborhood gyms, co-ed gyms, women-only gyms.

Then, for nearly three years. . . almost nothing. Once a week dance classes, a few walks here and there.  A neglected gym membership. Or two.

I never thought I could be someone who goes a whole month without exercising. It used to be not even a rainstorm kept me from my morning run. Lately I've skipped it more days a week than not. Work took over because I let it.  I stopped fighting for time for my health and so the rest of my life flooded in like a rogue wave. I got too stressed out so all I wanted to do was sleep and rest which made me stressed out. I burst the seams of my clothes and had to buy new ones but that wasn't what bothered me.  What bothered me was how not alive I felt. 

This summer I'm really back for the first time in about three years. It astonishes me that my body waited for me that long, but it faithfully did.  I began a yoga practice a year and a half ago, and the more I did that, the more I remembered what it felt like to be alive again.

Today I ran for an hour and then did an hour and a half yoga class. Tomorrow morning, the gym. 

Always, the neighborhood pool with my little girl where we swim until the pool closes.

When the lifeguards blow the whistle and call out closing time, I'm tempted to hide underwater in hopes that they will leave me there to live. Because for the first time in the longest, that's what it feels like I'm finally doing.

Me in the middle with some of my favorite hiking pals.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mistaken Identity

Today in the middle of a five mile walk I stopped in at the Rite Aid to take a break and look at make up.  I didn't want to buy anything.  I just felt like looking at the little pans of powdered hope before I hit the road again.

I was feeling pretty cute if you want to know the truth. I’ve been exercising all summer and I’m tan from swimming with my kid. I was wearing a tank top that in my mind showed off my glorious biceps, and a ball cap through which my swishy ponytail swished. 

Then this man I don’t know came up to me and said, “Is that Phyllis?”

“No,” I said. As soon as I turned he jumped back a little and looked sheepish.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I thought you were Phyllis.”

“I hope she’s a nice person,” I said.

“She is.  She’s—my neighbor,” the man said. And looked even more sheepish before he hustled away.

That’s when I realized that his neighbor Phyllis is an old woman. He had mistaken me for an old-aged woman and once he saw I was a medium-aged woman he became embarrassed.  How do I know this?  Because it’s happened before.  I never get mistaken for women named, say, Brandy or Kesha.  People come up when they can only see my hair and behind and call me names like Elsie and Phyllis. There I was feeling saucy and awesome, and this guy was thinking, oh look there goes my little old neighbor.  I should go up and say hello.  Maybe see if she needs some help crossing the street.

I'm never going back to dying my hair.  I'm not even tempted.  I love my hair long and grey. It's thicker than it was when I dyed it.  Regular dye jobs were not working out for me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that every box of hair color was an environmental nightmare. I'm not reconsidering the decision I made three and a half years ago to let my hair grow out in its natural white and grey.

My kid is brushing my hair as I write this.  She's applying oils and unctions and it smells great.  She just looked over my shoulder at what I'm writing. "I love your hair," she says.  "I don't think you look like an old lady."

Okay.  But still. Phyllis?  Damn.  

A former student and me.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Personal Movie Posse

People get titchy when they talk about movies.  To some, movies are like a religion with icons and saints and popes.  Not so much for me. I’m not so fancy.  I like what I like and I don’t want to hear it.

But in case you want to hear it, here are the movies that were there for me when I needed them:

1.  Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.  Visually juicy and the soundtrack is so good it makes me want to bite someone. Also, John Leguzamo’s Tybalt makes me want to bite someone.  I love that saucy Tybalt.  He is a true believer.

 2.  Almost Famous. "It's all happening." Also, the deleted scenes are awesome.

 3. Brother From Another Planet.  Early John Sayles, with lovely Joe Morgan.  "Welcome to Babylon, Brother. . ." Hypnotic, low budget, full of truth.   For example, a white guy tries to show that he’s a nice, non-racist white person by talking about how much he loved Ernie Banks as a kid.  I like it when moviemakers sneak little bits in that you know they saw somebody do once and were so horrified and delighted that they had to put it in a movie. Getting to do that must be a very fine thing about being a moviemaker.

4.  Smooth Talk.  I liked John Hughes just as much as the next white girl in the eighties, but Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club left me with a feeling of having been at a party for two hours where I was only pretending to think the punch had vitamins. Then there was Smooth Talk with Mary Kay Place, Treat Williams and Laura Dern. Laura Dern is a brave actress, even at this young age.  She is so gorgeous and riveting and her mother just hates her.  I saw this film rendition of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” when I was seventeen and it made me know like no warning from any adult could that my friends and I were most vulnerable at the times when we thought we were invincible.

 5.   Carmen. The Carlos Saura flamenco version.  I like it when the men dance fight over the girl. You know you are doing something right when two guys are dance fighting over you.

 6.  G.I. Jane.  If I'm ever going through a really bad patch, I watch this movie and say to myself "The more people fuck with me the more I want to gut it out."  This movie has been my go-to for bad days since 1998.

 7.  High Plains Drifter.  Because, hello.  He turns an entire town into a red hell.  And I like those hip huggers so sue me.

 8.  Desperately Seeking Susan.  My best friend Diane and I went into downtown Berkeley on the BART train to see it there.  Probably the most transformative time I have ever had at the movies. That ding dongy soundtrack that plays when Madonna walks around lifts my heart and makes me know that my life is mine and that wonderful things are about to happen.

 9.  Into the Wild.  I make excuses to show this to my students when I can. The soundtrack is soul-wrenching. Chris McCandless’ journey to find meaning in his place and time and circumstances will always be relevant. This movie is beautiful and unrelenting. 

10.  Godfather II.  My favorite is when Don Corleone brings his wife a nice pear the day he gets fired.  Next thing you know he's offing The Black Hand.  I like a fellow who takes care of business and still thinks of bringing his wife a piece of fruit. Now that I think of it, my husband did that very thing today.  He didn’t kill anybody, but he took a moment from a very hard work day to go into the hundred degree sun and bring me a fig from the tree in the backyard.  For no reason. So, I like that.

11.  After the Wedding.  I like looking at Mads Mikkelsen.  Those wide Scandinavian face planes kill me.  He’s a good actor too, but really I could watch him make a sandwich and feel entertained.

Which movies make your list?

The sandwich wouldn't even be necessary.
Photo: Stephane Reix/EPA

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Personal Book Posse

There have been lots of recommended reading lists going around lately. It's summer and people like to read or at least talk about reading. Experience in books is highly personal. Whenever anyone asks for a book recommendation, I always give the titles my friends or teachers wrote. It's too hard to say to someone looking for something to read on the beach or on the plane: Go grab One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It will rock you under the redwoods and the entire world will never be the same again.

Doesn't everyone have a personal book posse? A set of titles that rocked them under the redwoods at exactly the moments in time when they became who they were? These books are your foundation of personhood.  They have your back.  They get you.  Well, here is my personal book posse, in case you were wondering:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  All of us freshmen at Porter College in UC Santa Cruz in the late eighties read this for our core course.  It peeled off the surface of the world for me.  Then it peeled off my skin and left me to walk around in my bones.  It was painful and glorious and too much.  Just too much.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  I read this when I was seventeen and it was exactly everything I was feeling at seventeen. I moped around for weeks after reading that novel, because poor Tess.  That Angel Clare was so cold.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield shouldn't have been such a revelation to a teenager in the eighties.  But he was.  Sometimes he was the only one who understood.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.  This gets a reread at least once a year.  I carry it around with me in my purse half the time.  Quoyle with his chin, Aunt with her strong fingers.  These are good, ferocious people.

Sula by Toni Morrison.  For that scene when Sula cuts off the tip of her own finger to keep that group of boys away. The mushroom cap, the cherry blood. I guess Ms. Morrison and I both speak and write in the English language, but sometimes I doubt it. She's a most powerful magician. The most powerful I've ever read.

The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block. These were published in 1989, but I didn't come across them until I was in my thirties when they promptly made everything possible. I knew all along there were fairies.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch. If you read this, it will be difficult to believe that the characters aren't people you've actually known.  Evocative and alive in some of the same ways Block's writing is.  Those Los Angeles girls are a sensual lot.

Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner. I've never looked at a Gingko tree the same way since. It's about some of the ways genocide and torture haunt the human heart, and how love rules anyway. One of the best endings of a book ever.

Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Victoria will open your eyes to a whole population of young people dumped onto the streets once they age out of the foster system. Beautiful writing.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. My introduction into zombie literature, and I didn't even know it was about zombies at first.  Apocalyptic horror fiction for young adults. I loved it so much I order 75 copies for the school where I worked at the time. 

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.  Killed me when I was sixteen and made me write my first short story that wasn't about drunk drivers and vampires.

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. I read this on the dirty carpet on the floor of the studio I lived in with my husband. I was 23 and I had a marriage, a full time career, and a feeling of possibility.  I read these stories and rolled around on the carpet in amazement and then I stopped rolling and looked at the ceiling and thought, I'm going to be a writer.

The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds.  These poems are impossible to take in all at once.  Each one is a devastating, impossibly rich chocolate in a golden box of pain.

What is in your book posse?

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Butterfly Garden

In her excellent writer’s memoir The Getaway Car, Ann Patchett likens a new novel idea to a beautiful butterfly flying overhead.  It is such a perfect thing before a writer grabs it and ruins it by turning it into words and scenes and chapters.  A writer’s idea is at its most divine before she writes a single word. 

For the past two weeks I have resided in a butterfly garden of ideas for my own next novel.  I write down the plot outlines, characterizations and titles in a special notebook I keep just for the purpose.  Every one of these ideas is perfect, sublime. They are not yet squashed within the pages of a draft but rather gently kept between the covers of my idea notebook. They land on my nose and flit their wings. Their wind on my eyelids feels like hope, meaning, truth and possibility.

Last night, I chose one.  I’ve bent its wings already, forcing it into a plot outline of 22 chapters.  Now that I begin to write, the characters won’t flesh out exactly as I’ve imagined them.  They will grow their own vocal chords and saying what they want to say.  They’ll head this way on the highway instead of that.  The meaning that I’ve imagined for their lives will shift and mean something slightly or wholly different.

We are on our adventure together now, this idea and me. We exit the garden and enter into real life which requires cause and effect, show not tell and a narrative arc.  I’ve chosen this particular idea for its relevance and strength.  I’ve chosen this idea because it matters to me the most, because I looked into my teenaged daughter’s face over dinner two nights ago and it came to me like that.

And so we begin. 

Writer and artist friends, what is your process?  How do you decide which idea to turn into form? 

Blue Morpho. Photo by unknown photographer, posted on

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Boys From Rugby

Ten minutes ago I returned home from this year's Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry reading benefit featuring Bob Hass, Evie Shockley, Brenda Hillman, Forest Gander and Sharon Olds.  So poetry tonight, and that's how it is.

The Boys From Rugby

The boys from rugby pass
cleats clacking on the wet concrete
and in the puddles their otherworld brothers march under identical leaden skies

These subalterns with mud on their shins
These wild and tired boys
These other mothers’ sons
Who will be home in time for dinner
Smile on each other then
These northern lads from northern lands
The west has already been won.
So I stand by
And I stand by.

Other sons pass through unwon lands on the other side of the gate
Once I stood
For those boys wild and broken
Those otherworld brothers
My morning boys with their endless needing
On the run from R.I.P.s sneaky as rogue waves
Forgotten sons of loveless mothers with hearts like graves.

I do not stand by them now.
My arms are empty and hang by my sides.

The boys from rugby pass and smile
In friendly greetings, too fleet for Death
Too loved for need yet
Needlessly I stand. And I stand.


The focal point of the day is swimming. We live within walking distance of a community pool.  This walk is just a little bit too far for comfort on a hot day but we take it anyway knowing the water will feel all the better for it. It always does.

Hardly anybody uses community pools in our community anymore so we have the whole thing nearly to ourselves. We play mermaids.

The we is my nine-year-old daughter and me.  I call her Witch Baby but her real name is Margaret. She reminds me of Hester's Pearl, hence the name.  Plus she has powers. I'm only bothering to tell you this because I have the time. I'm not in a hurry right now.

We have been using the hour before pool time for household tasks that never get done during the school year.  Yesterday we reorganized a giant closet of chaos and turned it into a usable space. Today we touched up the ceiling where I smudged it with the wall paint two years ago.  These were impossible, insurmountable tasks. Together did them in less than 45 minutes. 

This morning she drew pictures in the garden while I wrote out a new book idea longhand. Tomorrow is for scrubbing the windowsills and then movies. Sunday we're thinking church. Then maybe baking something. Monday the pool. Maybe a roller blade trip. Library. Reading time. We're on chapter two of The Hobbit, shared reading at bedtime. Which is whenever we're tired.

Tonight I'm going to hear Sharon Olds and Robert Hass read their poetry at a benefit for Squaw Valley Community of Writers. My older daughter is coming with me. She is tired from working but has kindly agreed to be my date for the evening. 

This is the first summer in a long time that I haven't worked.  I'm off school, in between novels. I feel untethered to the earth without work. I cling to the household tasks, the pool, the poetry like an astronaut to a lifeline, bouncing from satellite to satellite searching for gravity. I protect my children's downtime so that they never turn to a job or employer for evidence of their personhood. They make their own gravity.

Tomorrow morning I'll go for a long walk and think of things. I won't look at the time. I'll think of what to write next, of the kind of woman I want to be, of what sorts of hummingbirds are knocking around my backyard, of nothing. Maybe I'll float away for a while. Maybe I will come back to earth.

Weekday mornings are so unbelievably hectic.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing Addict

I get up in the morning and my first thought is “thank You” because my life is great. My second thought is, how, where, when, what will I write today?

The rewards that I give myself for finishing a writing project are writing in my journal, writing letters, new notebooks, new pens, new pencils, and writing a new project.

Before I had literacy I drew squiggly lines on paper, pretending to write.

As soon as I had literacy I pointed to a book of nursery rhymes and said to my father, “I want to do that.” He immediately (and I mean right at that moment) left the house to purchase me a folder, a notebook with an African elephant on the cover, paper and pencils.  I still have the folder and the notebook.  My first poem was about my dad. (Entitled, “My Dad.”)

In high school classes I wrote in my notebooks and filled them with journals and short stories and novel starts. My teachers were flattered by my attention and praised my copious note-taking. The only teacher who knew differently was my mother but she let me keep writing anyway.

One boy I passed notes with in school only liked me in letters. For weeks he wrote me long handwritten notes and eagerly awaited my replies. In writing he was a passionate admirer. In person, not so much. I remember him fondly as my first reader.

I have had whole friendships conducted almost entirely through notes and letters. Real letters on pieces of paper, written in pen and pencil. 

I have written a novel every year for the past ten years.  As soon as I finish one, I begin another.

If I am not writing, I’m thinking about writing. If I am not writing, I'm thinking that I should be writing instead.

I’ve canceled social engagements because I was in the middle of writing something and I didn’t want to stop. My friendship circle has been reduced to people for whom this is okay.

I’ve written ten thousand words in a day before.

I’ve done things with my writing that I’m not proud of.  For cash.

When the editor of Esopus, an extraordinary magazine that I respect and love, regretted the small stipend that he could pay me for my story, I told him that I had written the story anyway for free. I told him that the weeks of working with his precise attention to my words were the best in my entire writing life.  I wrote him a handwritten thank-you note with drawings. (But I kept the cash.)

Whenever I pass a lonely house in the middle of a field I think, I wonder if that house has electricity so I could plug in my laptop. I wonder if it has a fireplace and a cozy chair.  I picture myself getting up early for a long hike and then settling in and writing all day long and that being my life now. 

I think, whoever lives there is lucky. Whoever lives there has a great life.

My writing supplies for Summer 2013.  Palomino Blackwings, baby.  Oh yeah.

Monday, June 17, 2013

No Such Thing As Lazy

I taught a young man who devotes hours of after school time to filmmaking. He has already won several media awards and he is only seventeen years old. At a recent convention in Los Angeles, he won first place in a competition that required participants to execute a music video from first idea to finished product in six hours. As a student, his journal is filled with pages and pages of extra writing, lengthy extemporaneous thoughts on everything. On top of that, he literally ran into my class every day in a scrambling, madcap wrestle with his classmate for their mutually favorite desk.

“I’m lazy,” he said to me one day. “That’s why my grades are bad.”

A couple weeks ago I went to the movies with a friend I greatly admire. We teach next door to each other and sometimes during my prep periods I have to stop what I’m doing to listen to her lecture. She’s incredibly knowledgeable, since she has a Master’s in Shakespearean Literature that she went all the way to a university in England to earn. Over post-movie yogurt she told me about her summer plans that include working several days a week, traveling, treasure-hunting, and lots of socializing. She has a writing project (twice the word count of mine) that she is revising, and more ideas to come.

“But I’m just so lazy,” she said. “That’s the problem.”

Yeah. No. These are not lazy people.

Lazy is an overused word if there ever was one. My student has tons of energy for becoming an excellent filmmaker.  He has energy for writing and for creativity and for knocking over anyone in his path on his way to his favorite desk.  My friend has energy for so many things I can’t even count them. These are not lazy people.

Traditional school systems value uniform academic success across the curriculum and athletic competition. These are wonderful pursuits if the people engaged in them have the energy for them.  But what about the students who have the energy for art, film, leadership, relationship? What about people who love math but aren’t excited about literary analysis, or who love to read and solve geometry proofs, but honestly don't care if their team wins in P.E.?

When we label people lazy we discount their true passions and gifts. We also give them a hidden excuse for not doing the required work in areas where they struggle. If I understand that I am a lazy person then I have an embedded reason not to work out when I don’t feel like it, or clean the house I live in with my family when I would rather do something else.  If my student has a self-image that he is a lazy person, then from what reserves does he draw the energy to do the tasks necessary to at least pass all of his high school classes? The truth is that he is not lazy. He has a surplus of energy and when it comes to film making and writing, a tremendous work ethic.

As a teacher, I work to help my students discover where their energies lie.  Their passions are clues as to where they can find the most success and happiness, as well as incentive to complete the tasks that do not interest them.  When we value the things we do have energy for, then all of the work we do becomes more purposeful. The things that we are lazy about can still get done, but maybe we stop beating ourselves and others up for not excelling at everything.

I have tons of energy for writing, reading, teaching, yoga, walks, and cleaning. I am lazy about shopping, dressing myself, interior decorating and making things with beads.

What about you? What do you have energy for? What are you "lazy" about?

I have lots of energy for dancing (thank you Angela James for the photo), not so much for tanning.