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Form & Content

December 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I have been meaning to share some of my thoughts with you for a while now, thoughts on the spiritual significance of thankfulness, the relationship between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and my reflections on patience.

I have been held back by my preference for this exchange to be interactive, more conversational than blogs, facebook, e-mail, or skype.  And even though I still have trouble admitting it, I am a teacher of some kind who believes that discussion has to be one of the most fertile learning grounds available other than silent contemplation.  Both need and feed on each other.

Workshops may be my ideal medium for sharing information on self-improvement, spiritual and artistic development.  But if you have any ideas to add, please let me know.

This blog is becoming a voice for the practical side of writing that I’m experiencing this year, which I am happy to share, and feel that nothing is lost if there is no real discussion around it.  However, topics that could be life changing and life sustaining, I think, need to be discussed, tested out, lived in.  So I will continue to look for the appropriate mediums for those topics.

* * *

Form: visual shape of words on the page including blank space.

Content: what’s being said and what’s omitted.


Writing this year has uncovered new meaning and discovery in response to the question, “What form will liberate this content?”*

My protracted struggle for this answer takes place during a process called editing.  I approach editing like solving a Rubik’s Cube, adjusting, reassessing, adjusting.  Poems probably have an infinite number of forms they could take on the page, not to mention on stage, or digitally.  But only certain combinations of content and form will feel like a solution. And all any writer needs, thankfully, is one, the illusive “right” one.  It is hard enough in itself to find.

I don’t usually know what the solution is until I get there.  Reading other poets’ work does provide invaluable hints.  But basically it’s dark; I’m hitting switches, sometimes banging on walls until the lights come on.  Things do get easier, eventually you learn the editorial equivalent of the fact that you are poking and prodding for light switches (perhaps not outlets or the radiator that you found) and light switches are usually located at door handle height. Each time I adjust, I reread the work again thinking, what effect did this action have?  Is the room any brighter?  Did I really want a diagonal row of green?

Through this process I have discovered the sacred relationship between form and content and that a heavenly match can mean artistic matrimony.  Their union is my flag at the end of the editing marathon, not quite so neat and defined, but probably as close as I will get to an end.  And as any runner, athlete, and artist knows, there are no finish lines, just gaps between races when you train.

Some of my friends have been encouraging me to do other things with my poems, add music, visual images, audio.  And I have stood firm against the suggestion wanting to remain a page poet for now, wanting to give my full attention to the craft of translating experiences into words and shaping content onto the page.

But ironically, through my faithfulness to matching form to content, I find that not everything that I have to share with the world is best suited to writing.  Because I am a writer, visual artist, dancer, closet lyricist and graphic designer, teacher, entrepreneur, inventor, student, ad infinitum, certain content will beg to be shared using other mediums.

In the name of focus, I had thought it’d be best to section off one dark room of creative space for the time being.  I chose to focus on page poetry.  However, to use the metaphor one more time, being allied with matching form to content means that you may have to turn on the lights in other rooms too… potentially in other neighborhoods…maybe in other countries.  Most of it in the dark.

So here I am, still honoring my basic understanding that form and content must generate fusion and enrichment but also finding that this harmony brings me on an unexpected journey, out of more solitary work and into group collaboration.  So I won’t try to force these and other insights into a container.  I will look towards those other skills and strengths that want to be developed and be on the lookout for appropriate vessels.

Thanks for listening!


*I think I was first introduced to this by C.S. Lewis who presented the idea that certain environments liberate us … like water unleashes the innate abilities of fish.  For teachers, this concept is probably painfully obvious.  But it still feels fresh to me.  I have been looking for and working to create liberating commitments and environments ever since…

Leaving the Matrix

September 14, 2010

This past summer with just enough passion, recklessness, and thought to create an explosion, I quit my job as a teaching assistant and decided to plunge head first into writing full time.  For better or for worse.  Can you hear the faint ringing of wedding bells?

Now for those of you who don’t already know of this decision, it may sound like it came out of nowhere.  That’s definitely how many of my colleagues took the news.  “What will you be doing?”  “Don’t you want to work?” were just some of the questions in the onslaught.  And I was utterly defenseless in my answers.  How do you make writing sound like a good thing to do especially in a recession?  So I did what any writer would do, I made things up.  The truth was that I had no definitive plans except to study writing and write a whole lot.  No schedule, nothing that could be easily translated to people still trapped inside the matrix where the work you get paid to do is everything.

I stayed at my paying job until July 22nd, the end of the school year.  My school honored me with gifts.  I am convinced that in England you cannot leave a workplace without flowers, candy, and mementos from colleagues.  The most challenging part of leaving, however, was giving up the regularity and familiarity of having that job.  Children that used to heed my words about as much as dust on the wall had become some of my favorite pupils.  I became proud of my ability to lead a classroom of children in the teacher’s absence with little trouble.   I was good at my job and getting better all the time.  So when I had to leave my babies I couldn’t help but weep.  Being a part of their development had been such a blessing, getting to know them over the span of a 18 months, watching them as they matured… Yes there is definitely a teacher in me.  But I knew that I wouldn’t remain a teaching assistant forever, it was time challenge myself in a different way.  Writing won out over getting a teaching certification.  It’s one of the few things that I have worked on with consistency since I was five years old.  And if that doesn’t show commitment, I don’t know what does.

So here I am.  I’ve titled this entry ‘Leaving the Matrix’ because I really feel like there’s something akin to being an outlaw when one decides to follow a path outside of traditional systems of education and employment.  So many people don’t know which box to put me in.  They are confused by me, not that people weren’t confused by me already.  But now I think I may confound them, unless they’re writers themselves or own their own business.  Entrepreneurs and other artists know first hand about escaping the matrix.  I didn’t realize that any complete stranger would be supportive of my decision to do this until I went to a career development workshop for writers and was met with congratulations when a woman introduced me and told everyone my story.  I was shocked.  I felt I had to qualify her statement by saying, “It’s really scary.”  But they were all writers.  Of course they knew the nature of the journey.

As to everyone else, a word has been floating around when I mention somewhat reluctantly that I am a writer.  The word is “lucky.”  Not “crazy,” the word you would think they’d say.  No, “lucky.”  Today my dentist said it.  A few weeks ago a young man about my age said it: “You’re lucky.”  I am not really sure what that means.  Can quitting one’s job be classified as luck?  What about all the hours of work that need to be put in, the fact that I put in more work being a writer than I have for any other job.  Is any of that lucky?  But I think I understand.  The perception is that I get to do what I want all day, maybe twiddling my thumbs looking for the next big wave of inspiration with the potential of getting paid for it.  Or maybe the statement is more benign than that and more benevolent.  Maybe other people want to leave the matrix too but they don’t know how.

The young man who told me I was lucky, I actually believed.  He said that he couldn’t think of anything else to do but join the army and had completed his screening tests.  I thought to myself, well, if being a writer means I am determined to make a way to do what I love, then maybe I am lucky…

Not having any income, however, is not lucky.  I do have some financial support from loved ones and some money I’ve managed to save.  So I am still living comfortably and eating quite well for a “starving artist.”  Best of all, no matter how challenging things get or how doubtful people stuck in the matrix can be, something in me knows everything is working out for the best, that it always has.  All I have to do is show up and do the work.  The divine has been in charge all along.

The British Like Chocolate

April 20, 2010

Hello everyone,

I have missed you!  It’s been such a long time since I’ve written about my experiences in England.  And I’m having such a fantastic day, that I think it’s time to share some of my experiences and reflections on my 2nd year here.

Ready?

My second year has been worlds better than my first.  Would it be inappropriate to also add “times infinity”?  What has made it so good is that I now have so many more connections with artistic venues and relationships with people.  It may take the British more time to warm up to an outsider than it typically takes Americans.  But once you’re in, you’re in.  At work my colleagues have realized that I’m highly creative and so I receive a good amount of artistic assignments.  I just feel more at home at work.  Not to mention, I have my same precious odd little children as last year whom I completely adore most days.  Being able to see them grow and develop over the span of two years has been a wonderful experience.  When I’m a teacher, yes let’s not fight the inevitable, I want to have the opportunity to follow a class like this.  Maybe even spend four years with the same class.  Watching people grow and develop over time is endlessly fascinating to me.

But you want stories I’m sure — not just summaries.  And this particular moment sticks out in my mind.  It was the first day back at school.  The Deputy Head (Vice Principal in American speak) went to the U.S. for the April term vacation and brought back an assortment of American candy.  There were nerds, sweet tarts, tootsie rolls….the collection goes on.  It must have been some type of after Easter sale.

The spread was laid out sometime before tea, which starts at 10:30.  I, being too busy looking for cookies (biscuits in British speak) to dip in my tea, completely overlook the American sweets.  I only find them when I notice there are no cookies on the table yet.  But when I do, I sift around for a little while and pick up some nerd candy — classic.  I take this with me to the staff meeting and savor it.  I pour it into my hand, shift from hand to mouth, and crunch, crunch, crunch when I remember that sweets are supposed to help you stay awake.  Perhaps candy was invented for staff meetings.  My neighboring colleague cautions me to mind my teeth.  After more crunching, I finally allow this caution to sink in.  Is she telling me I’m too loud?  I’m keeping my mouth closed, I think to myself.  Oh well.  I slow down, thinking that slowing down will help me either way and finish of the last of ‘em.  Once back in the staff room, I notice my colleagues hesitate to touch the American candy.

“What is this?”  one asks.

“I know what’s good,” I offer.  No one seems interested in my expertise.

“Is there any chocolate?” someone else asks.

I tell her to try a tootsie roll.  She does and is appalled.  That’s when I realize that perhaps tootsie rolls aren’t really much like chocolate.  I look at the chewy candy she’s taken a bite out of.  Nope, she was definitely looking for something like a chocolate bar.  See, the British, at least the ones at my school, tend to like chocolate.  And not just any chocolate.  American chocolate doesn’t meet their standards.  Perhaps it is not rich or creamy enough.  I’ve had this conversation with my colleagues who have had chocolate in both places and decided to conduct an experiment of my own despite my chocolate allergy.

I tried Mars Bars and Kit Kats and an assortment of birthday sweets from the children.  My verdict?  British chocolate is MUCH better.  It’s delicious, so much so that I developed a little chocolate habit.  I won’t say addiction because I could do without it.  One colleague considered herself nearly cured when she went from needing to have it everyday multiple times a day to going five days without it.  She has, however, recently relapsed into the habit.  It’s hard kicking the craving when every time it’s anyone’s birthday there is a spread of it laying out on the table.  And of course you want a little chocolate with your tea or coffee.  I have been very careful since my experiment– I now stick to pastries.  That of course brings it’s own problems….I developed a little pastry habit.

Really exciting times for me coming up:

  • Alice Walker will be in London for two days so I am going to check her out.
  • Since the local library has been renovated, they seem to have anything and everything I want to read.  I practically live there and somewhere between there and London.  Plus I discovered a contemporary poetry library in London.  (Discovered like Columbus discovered.  There were already people in it when I arrived ;-) )
  • My mom managed to send me a package that has arrived and was NOT delayed by volcanic eruptions.  So it will be Christmas in April — SO excited!
  • There are so many literary events (workshops, conferences, festivals, readings, you name it in every genre) going on from now until I come home in July that I’m only choosing the ones I’m most interested in.  I love that I cannot attend all of them because there are so many.  This time last year I still didn’t have a clue.  Now I’m telling natives what’s happening.
  • I plan on taking my first drawing class since junior high this June.  I’ve been a visual artist almost as long as I’ve been a writer (at heart of course).  And I’m really excited to see what some formal training will do.
  • I freed up some time in my schedule and commitments for writing on the blog.  So there will be more of that.

It’s been a pleasure updating you.  I may add an installation of “Literary Love” where I share my recent poetry and writing with you.  I’m getting deeper into my personal study of writing also.  I cannot tell you how much happier and better adjusted I am this year.  There will for sure be more to come.

Stay tuned…

Transitions into Writing

October 18, 2009
Undertoe

Undertoe

“So, you want to be a writer?” my heart says mimicking those most popular How To books.

I don’t even mention the irony of this. “Yes,” I reply.

“Not only that, you want to TEACH writing?”

“Yes.”

“But don’t you have to be a writer BEFORE you can teach writing?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Uh huh.”

Perhaps I should share my canvas with you.  It has lots of colors to choose from: bright ones like Songbird Yellow and Paisley Blue.  There are deep dark ones like a Breathless Chocolate or a Forest Indigo.  I can describe them to you but I don’t know what I can make with them.  All the beautiful colors that I have before me, yet I do not know what to do with them….

Writing in my life has been more important than travel.  I travel so that I may gather experiences and lessons for my writing, to open up my world views, to go on external journeys, to grow.  It has been so much fun to experience the world and then play with it on my page.  But the question has always been: is this a childhood phase, will I grow out of it, what kind of life can I make with writing?

With a persistence I didn’t know was possible, it continues to push its way through the surface.  I enjoy other things: working with children, photography, philosophy, learning about various frameworks.  But nevertheless it calls to me.

Why do I run from it?

It is a relationship full of work that doesn’t promise to be rewarding.  The hours put in don’t necessarily guarantee that a work began will be a work completed.  The amount of time, attention, and devotion makes my head spin sometimes.  But there’s this quote that says you must “try and achieve your most impossible dream for it is on the road towards that dream that you will find what you truly seek.”  What good is an unexplored dream?

Right now I think I seek to play with the world, not just interact with it, to play with it like a scientist or child plays with toys.  What if I move this over here.  What would be the result if I combined these things?  I need to create, it’s who I am, the fulfillment of myself.

So, in essence writing and I are like conjoined twins sharing a heart and several vital organs.  We didn’t separate in my mother’s womb.  I keep trying to live a severed life because I want my own stuff, because many times I feel too tired and unsure to share the vital energy and blood with writing, to share my food, my mind, my bowels, with what she wants, eats, and disposes of.  I’ve wanted to cut her loose but the doctors have said this is not possible; this is suicide.

Perhaps this is what John meant when he said “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  No amputation.  I come directly from this truth.

So I wonder at this figure beside me and intertwined with me, sharing my navel and neck.  How can my body support two?  How can her body support me?  I still worry that okaying this union will somehow be my demise.  I am unsure how…I just know how I get stuck, losing time, unable to pull myself away from the creation, devoting hours unending until I’ve reached a satisfying break in the piece.  I’m unsure of this kind of devotion.  How do I know she won’t suck me dry and leave me with nothing?

Conversazione con Italia

April 17, 2009

How do you get to know a place, anyplace.   Do you know it through navigation; you can direct anyone to any destination, all you need is a cross-street? Perhaps you know places by culture, tradition, food. Or maybe you’re the one who knows places by genre. If you’re into coffee, you can tell me the best place to get a cup of joe in any major city.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, having spent half the trip in a swarm of tourists reminds me that too often we settle into the prescribed itinerary of historic sights, tour buses, and shopping while abroad. Granted, when given less than a week it’s difficult to get a sense of anything. Could you imagine being asked to get to know a person in less than a week? Let’s say the person that you must get to know in a week is 100 yrs old. Imagine a hundred years of experiences and lucid memories shaping and molding this person. Where do you start? How do you get to know him or her? Is this even possible?

Of course cities are much much older than this with a lot more events shaping their current condition. Would we buy things from the 100 year old woman to get to know her? Would we take endless pictures of her doing different things in her neighborhood or house? Perhaps we would take some pictures. But I bet most of us would, over coffee or tea, sit down and have a conversation. I am considering making my own guide to places to help people have, what my friend once so elegantly put: “Conversations with the City.” Why not break the mold of souvenirs and quantity of activities being the measure of one’s trip? But the question then becomes: how do I or anyone else get to know a place in a short amount of time? What is feasible to find out in less than a week or even shorter trips? This is something that I will continue to consider.

The pictures will show some of the conversations that Tre and I had with Italy. We had a great time! Stepping out of the subway station/underground to see Il Doumo Milano towering over us was absolutely magical. Climbing its narrow walkways of 158 stairs made us thankful that we weren’t claustrophobic. But it was all worth it for the chance to have a more intimate look. In Milan mostly, we wandered the streets and read or wrote in the park. We navigated our way back to our hotel once the underground stopped running. Milan felt like home base. Each day we woke up at about 6am to get ready, have breakfast, and begin our explorations. Because our flight left from Milan, we came back to it after going to Venice.

Oh, Venice! Simply stunning. All of the sudden we looked out the window of the train and almost everything was water. Tre took video and I took pictures of the city as dusk turned into night. Dense fog swallowed us from all sides as we road a boat/bus to Lido, one of the islands on the outskirts of Venice. (Venice is actually all islands.) The best way I could think of describing the ride to the Lido was a “circus for the imagination, a thing of dreams or nightmares.” As night fell, the fog grew more dense. Looking around was like being lost at sea. You could hear the ripples of the water sloshing and collapsing. I imagined that one or several of waves were the snake like undulations of a Loch Ness creature.

From Venice, and the Adriatic, I learned that we all actually belong to the sea. Whatever is on land is what she has gifted us. And whatever is in her depths is what she has reclaimed for herself. Her presence is often left on buildings where the paint has been licked away by flood to reveal the underlying brick. It’s as if the city is itself a boat rocking — in danger of capsizing every now and then.

Extraterrestrials: A Case Study

March 5, 2009

Let me start off by saying that I don’t really believe in aliens. At least not the kind that whiz around in flying saucers or take people away in their space-ships. To be honest, I no longer consider the possibility of their existence even when watching movies about them. So you can imagine my utter astonishment at meeting over 30 extraterrestrial life forms since January. All of them between the ages of 5 and 6.

Who are they? What do they want from us? When will they go away? Are all questions that I find myself asking at some point in the day, if not all day. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with complete answers. Understandably so, they are still learning how to form complete sentences. Communication can become desperate. Especially when the commonly used word “walk!” is translated as “RUN!” in terrestrial speak.

Let us spend a moment to reflect on their culture. These are my findings.

Amusements: “Look, he has a beard!”
Facial Hair:
What they had meant to say was “mustache.” The substitute teacher had a mustache which caused some of the children to ripple in laughter. I still don’t know why that was so funny.

Shadows
After a gymnastics competition, maybe a symptom of fatigue, the children started playing with their shadows. This included sticking out their tongues, dancing, and otherwise taunting the shadow. They also found a perverse fascination with bird droppings.

Fixations: “Do I get a sticker now?”

Stickers are a much coveted item, somewhat like a narcotic. For these students will move away from negative influences, do and even redo their work feigning for the opportunity to have one. It’s not uncommon to hear students saying repeatedly, “Do I get a sticker now?” The research on sticker addiction disappointingly lags behind. Perhaps due to a lack of funding. Whatever the cause, the students’ motivation is in constant jeopardy. Eventually sticker fatigue ensues. Shortly after a sticker overload, the students break out of their ephemeral guise of acceptable behavior.

Community: “Miss, look at what he is doing.”

These bonds are quite transient. Students enjoy telling on each other. Shame over “grassing,” snitching, is definitely not innate. Whether someone brings a toy to school or is doing something that they are not supposed to be doing, everyone who knows will almost instantly rat you out.
Justice System: “It’s your fault; you started it.”

This mantra is applied to everything. If someone started something, then it is okay to join in. This includes pushing, hitting, shoving, and teasing. If you see other people teasing someone, then you may also decide to join. Your justification? So-and-so started teasing her first. Logical? Of course not. At least, not to us.
Apologies mend most disputes, as 5 and 6 year olds often have short memories. I have to recommend that instead of “please,” the magic word be changed to “sorry.” After purging both sides of any trivial dispute, I have seen nearly everyone go back to playing after saying this ceremonial word. Even though there is plenty of pushing and hitting, they don’t get into any sustained fights.

Uncategorized “Can I go home with you?”

They are a strange and affectionate group. Even with all of my attempts to get them to pay attention, do their work, stop talking, try it again — they still manage to dote on me. One child has begun kissing my hand, children ask me to sit next to them, another child asked if she could go home with me. I get hugs and pictures. The list goes on. Students that seem to regard my voice as unintelligible “wah wah’s”, like in Charlie Brown, will tell me about their newest crush or wave at me with beaming faces on their way to school. I of course beam back as if they were my star pupil. It matters not their growing list of offenses. All is fair in love, war, and education.

Woman on Wire

February 18, 2009

I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret.  After learning how to swim, my greatest fear became falling.  Not heights per se, I don’t mind being up high.  But the risk of falling down unravels me.  It is the weightlessness.  Having absolutely no control over what’s happening.  Sure, you can try to land safely, soundly.  But you are at the mercy of the wind and gravity.  In essence you must wait for your landing.  I heard going completely limp works, making the body more shock absorbent.  I have been fascinated with with falls, free runners who jump off of buildings and roll to distribute the impact.  Getting back to the point, however, the landing doesn’t really leave much of an impression in my mind.  It is the reckless abandon of falling.

Despite my fear of those stomach sensations and not being able to direct my path, I still ride roller coasters and perhaps one day plan to go sky diving. Incredible, I know.  But it seems to me that one has to let go, allow the water or wind to take you, at least every once in awhile.  Perhaps this is why I find myself in England, having rode on the back of a mysterious wind or wave.

Luckily, in the documentary Man on Wire, there isn’t any falling.  Only a seriously focused man dedicated to the task of living his art: tight rope walking.  His dreams, talent, focus, and friends bring him all the way to the top of the twin towers, the finale of an immaculately prepared and executed plan.  I’ve never seen or heard about anyone so focused in bringing about a work of art.  Then, if all the preparation weren’t enough, he, fully aware of his mortality, danced on the wire.  How exquisite, especially the French words and gestures used to describe art in a way that seemingly only the French can.

The movie left me thinking, how can I face my fears?  What is my artistic dream?  What is yours?

If you haven’t seen it already, it is an interesting movie to watch.  I recommend it.  Let me know what you think.

My wire is probably writing.  But my towers, who knows….

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