Monday, July 21, 2008

Waiting to Know

Did flash fiction/short shorts/micro fiction (under 500-1,000 words - this one is under 200) with the kids today. Some got that you really have to insert conflict EARLY in order for it to work, some will have to work on it. Here's what I wrote at the park with the kids - the first one I wrote sucked, totally expected, and off, but this one is actually quite good, if I do say so myself...

Waiting to Know

Short short by Miriam Hall

The sharp sound of screaming began at exactly 2:02pm. He knows this even now because his watch face froze in his mind at that moment, hands both perking to the right. The only other detail he recalls from that time is a debilitated rust and black beetle next to his left hand, wing ends crushed in some accident, or on purpose.

“It’s a soccer game and someone’s team is winning,” he convinced himself, though the calls were blood-curdling. He needed it to be a game. He had just found a handwritten note from his wife on her lavender stationary, with her black fountain pen. It included, amongst others, the following lines: “Not like it used to be,” “He just makes me happier,” and “I can’t live with your depression about dying.”

Later that day, he read in an evening rag that a school bus had gone off the single lane, ruby-colored, covered bridge near his waterside home. Forty schoolchildren, kindergarten aged, and two teachers, plus the driver, plunged into the raging river. Somehow, they all survived.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Santa is Satan with a Beard

Today we had "midterm" evaluations - the students filled out a sheet letting me know how they think they are doing in the class, and I filled out the same sheet. They told me and explained themselves, then we had a conversation. It was great - most of the kids are perfectionists, so they underrated themselves, and it was neat to see their eyes light up when I could tell them "Yes. I am giving you this rating because you rock, not because I am trying to make you feel good." I learned that the more acting out ones actually have problems at home or this is their first time away from home, one of the girls who gets distracted the most TOLD ME to set her apart from the other girls when we are on field trips so she will stay on focus. And finally, one of the strongest students told me she came to this camp because she wants to become a poet when she grows up. "I came here so I could improve my writing, so I can grow up to be a poet." How often do you hear kids say that? NOT OFTEN, LET ME TELL YOU. I almost started crying. "And have you learned a lot about writing?" I asked. "Yes, I have," she answered with a massive grin.

Meanwhile, my brave 21 year old assistant took charge of the remaining group and did a half activity/half class thing - first, she taught them the basics of fiction (we are switching over to fiction next week) and they made up six word stories, which they then went outside and wrote on the sidewalks of the college campus we are on. After that was done - and the results were admired and photographed (pix up soon on Flickr) - she brought them back up to the room and had them do improv story games. Games where you die if you drop the plot, games where people do a live exquisite corpse type story, etc. Super fun. Very high energy, but super fun.

One of my more reserved and clever students came up with the six word "story" that is the title for today's blog. She said "I am not sure if I should tell it to you, because the assistant said I shouldn't put it on the sidewalk, so I thought it might be wrong." I finally goaded her into telling me, and I told her that while it wasn't really a story, it was really, really funny, and not so much wrong as just potential offensive - on a Dominican college campus, no less. She smiled, relieved. Offensive she could take being - just not wrong.

Quite a few of the kids in the class think that editing is a waste of time, and this is my karma, again, this week, so easy - for it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I finally *got* editing - I am not as afraid of it anymore, and I realize, and forgive myself, for not getting things "right the first time," as if there were a right to be had. It's been therapeutic, in fact, to take these 12 year olds and those of similar age through Writing Down the Bones, allowing them freedoms no one gave me at that age, though certainly plenty encouraged me in my writing, for sure!

So Santa is Satan sometimes. You can't always trust your gifts. Sometimes - usually, as Becky and I recalled for the fiftieth time last night over dinner at Pasqual's, your strength and weakness are not even two sides of the same coin, or siblings. They are the same. Move one letter two spaces over and your ego plays a whole new role in your life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"I'm so tired...I haven't slept a wink..."

-The Beatles.

Teaching summer camp at the moment, or rather, a hybrid summer camp/summer school for Gifted and Talented Wisconsin kids, from all walks, really, and all skill levels within the actually quite wide range of G+T. The job is thrilling and fun, exhausting and draining, all at the same time.

I've a class of 15 junior high school kids - ages 12-15 - 5 boys, the rest, girls. They come to the class with really wide-ranging skill levels when it comes to writing - some are sensitive but don't express themselves clearly, some are insensitive to others' feelings but write a damned good story. Then there's the middle world - good with what they do, but are used to scraping by, bored in school. These are the ones it is hard to challenge - and I likened the experience of, along with my aide, assisting all 15 at once, to being like having 15 legs and two heads. Phew.

Two of the things that have come up, just today, that blow my mind in one way or another (and each day is full of stuff like this!):

One student my aide and I talked about at lunch with his RA. He's the highly sensitive and actually intellectually articulate type, but his emotional growth is clearly stunted. He keeps himself separate, actually talks to himself at times, and often, when he gets going, will go on and on (I told my aide that a "conversation" with him actually qualifies as a "monologue") regardless of whether or not (usually me or my aide) anyone is listening. His RA expressed similar observations, and we all agreed our only concern is that other kids will mock him or shut him out. I said "that hasn't happened yet," (this was at lunch) "but I know it will. We'll keep each other posted."

Then it did, slowly but surely throughout the very same afternoon. Bit by bit, they excluded him, talking about him while he was reading aloud, leaving him behind (today they are aloud to begin walking to and from class as a group) and snickering at his comments or walking style. Tomorrow I will give a general respect talk to back up my dirty looks, and begin speaking privately and directly to those who are doing it the most, before it catches on.

But here's the thing. What I said to his RA is this "I am mostly concerned for him - he seems to not be empathic, not connect with others. He speaks violently sometimes, and disjointedly, as if he doesn't realize others have feelings, though he is often aware of his own." Then it happened - doing Natalie Goldbergs "Be An Animal" chapter today in class, I asked this question "How many of you have imagined what it would be to be inside another human or animal's head?" Too vague, so I tried the opposite: "Has anyone NOT ever tried this?" Of course no one else raised their hand, but he raised his. "Never?" I asked, before I could stop myself, shocked. "No. I do not imagine myself to be other beings." he stated in his hyper-articulate manner.

What worries me isn't the kids mocking him, that we can stop. What worries me for him is him.

We went to the zoo today, to the primate house. Long hot walk both ways, but the kids barely complained. And the primates were rich material - lazy lemurs, cute colobos and frisky chimps. Everyone had a great time - even if the great time involved becoming angry at zoos, and expressing that on paper in a real way. I was aiming for them to practice personification and anthropomorphism - many of them, in fact, crawled right into the primates' heads and really discovered some amazing observations. Lovely, in fact. Often heart-breaking.

Half way through our time there, a crew of Head Start teachers and kids came in, utterly recognizable (from my days doing school shows at the Overture) in their safety vests, and by the fact that every single child (though not all adults) were African-American. They stopped at each station, observing, correcting each other, squealing. In a totally non-racist way, you could see my students comparing the kids to the apes (as there were so many kids, and they were all in the way; later a student told me, too, that yesterday the Psychology class was TOLD to compare primates to people in front of them). As so was I.

Then families began to pour in, and the air got stuffier, filled with claustrophobia (for me) and heat and breath. The Head Start kids got lost in the crowd - you could hear them calling out for each other, and then at one point, in the peak of the busy-ness, a very loud, very frightening banging began - what turned out to be a ton-heavy gorilla responding to a threatening gesture from a small boy in the crowd, who had crawled past the ropes and propped himself illegally close to the glass. Then the chimps, in the room I was in, kicked in, with gorillas, chimps and kids banging on safety glass or plastic, and my kids jumped up, rushing to see the action, as of course, everyone was. Into this melee, just off to the entrance, walked a new school group, this time all white, adults and teachers, wearing often over-sized red tee-shirts with the name of their school printed neatly on the chests: "Le Petite Academy." I don't know this school but I could read what it looked like from so much of the groups' characteristics, just on the surface. I felt both a sense of equinimity - everyone gets to go to the free zoo - and sadness, though I still don't know why.

When we got back one girl in my group, who happens to be African-American (in fact her family is part of the Nation of Islam in Milwaukee) had noted what had happened; the ruckus and rushing, crowding and piles of black kids, then, in the wake of the crowd leaving, dispersing, the silent wave of white kids. No one other than me noticed, as I asked to see if anyone had, after she was done reading.

No conclusions. Just observations - or only a few conclusions, anyway. Will try to keep talking about this here as it is important for me to "download" as a friend calls it, with all the intensity continually ramping up with the kids. Shout out to Birdfarm who just got done doing what I am doing only with a much harder class, larger, often with topics she wasn't ready to teach and at an age she didn't know well or want to work with. This is exhausting even when you are doing just what you love with just the right group. And they are - just the right group. Amazing.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sometimes Karma *Is* That Easy

Understanding Karma, much less accepting/liking it, is a bit difficult at times. Then, some mornings, you wake up and some stranger is parked in front of your driveway and it is really that easy to get, at least on the surface...

It was a rough night, big storms all night, and Dylan sick, plus I had more violent nightmares (been the trend lately). Woke up numerous times, often couldn't get back to sleep, discovered in my semi-awake state the perfect resolution for my one act/short story about a slave falling in love with her master, etc, etc. Then, I woke just before 7 to see a car parked directly in front of our driveway. Not in it. Just in front of it. Blocking it, utterly.

First reaction I became conscious of: rage. What the fuck? Yo. Who would do that? Then, wonder - wow. That's ballsy. Then worry - maybe it's a friend or even a stranger but they are sick or broke down. I noticed a pink sign in the window and I thought "Let's meditate, see if we can' t dissapate some of the aggression from the dream, then go check it out." So I did - both. I walked out to the car, looked at the pink note, and it was inside the window, some kind of concert description. Then, I saw him. The driver, seat pulled all the way down, asleep in his own car.

Now I was really curious. I knocked on the window. Again, loudly. Four times, increasingly loudly, until he shuddered away, asleep on his belly. There's a bar across the street and Willy St Coop/Fete de Marquette party last night just down the road, but this is a first. He blinked at me, confused. I pointed at the driveway and shrugged. He sat up a bit more, clearly tired/sleepy/out of it. I said "Hi. You are parked in front of my driveway. Could you move?" in a totally neutral tone, mostly amused and/or concerned, the anger gone. He blinked again, then sat up fully, hard since his seat was all the way down.

Then he sort of got it and nodded. I think he might have not spoken English, or, he was just really, really really hung over. I am bypassing the homeless possibility (except for maybe for one night) due to a)his being in front of my driveway and uber visible and b) the fact that the car was a super pricey SUV and he was young and wearing a concert tshirt to match the sign in the window.

I went inside, laughing and he left a couple of minutes later.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

To Distraction

While I was away this week, off on my first week of six weeks of vacation (two of which I will be teaching summer school creative writing to Junior High School kids), my 7:30 Wednesday class got together and did their own assignment: "What are your distractions, past and present?"

Ah, a good one.

My head is swimming with lists and lists of numbers, piles of defilements and possible ways that potential can turn into crud or credentials, all to be used against understanding suffering. Out in the heat of the Chicago afternoon I emerge covered in a thin sweat - from nervousness or sudden exposure to the heat, I cannot tell. Nervous about what? The Truth, with capitol letters? About confusion? Or about how my back aches because I haven't done this much sitting in weeks. Weeks of doing some sitting, 15 minutes here or there, but nothing like this, waiting for Khandro Rinpoche to burst silently into the room, pulling us all up by our egos and quietly conducting open heart surgery all while cradling us in loving kindness, one by one.

Being in the presence of such a teacher is both a distraction and also distracting, the pain of wanting to be close to her pulling me into my intimacy issues faster than any lover. How do I open my heart to what she is saying? What she is saying goes below even what she is saying, as Virginia noticed, so deep that even the way Rinpoche appears distracted for one moment (looking out the window at the passing bus) is mindful. Is that what one could work toward? Having distraction even itself be mindful?

Today she said the thing that just killed me, the thing that slayed me and I don't want to write about it, all I want to do is complain about how my back aches then go eat sushi in Chicago, watch some movie or tv series on tv and forget for just one night about dharma. But as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, again and again, there is no privacy, no place where the dharma does not rest, and so I am compelled to try and transmit what I heard in what she was saying...

She talked about our basic ground, our basic goodness, always there. Many have talked about it being like the sun and when the clouds go over it we forget there is a sun behind the clouds, always, shining its light nonetheless, just on the clouds instead of us. But She spoke of this in a way which was more active, even more direct, which is her manner: she spoke of how it is as if we have a thin film over our basic goodness, a sort of sticky layer of fog, which is made up of, composed of, established by "movement" - the movement of our thoughts, distraction of our minds, fidgeting of our bodies. We, that's right, WE move away from our basic goodness, because it is MOVEMENT that tells us we are alive. We don't trust stillness. We are creating that fog. "And this is basic creativity," she said, which believe it or not didn't shock me so much, as I have been coming to some understanding of this lately, that creativity, whether for better or good, is storytelling, often a distraction in itself, if used for the "wrong" purposes. It's what she implied by this that killed me -

RESISTANCE IS THE BASIS OF OUR LIVES. I often talk about how resistance is important in our lives, shows us, in life as well as in creativity, where we need to do work, where gentleness could help us out, where, as one of my students put it once, we could put down a little red flag and come back to later, after we are done writing, if it is too painful for now. But from what she is saying, this static energy of creation, this constant movement, this isn't "issue-based" this isn't "about me or you" no, this is our basic reactivity. We do this REGARDLESS of what is happening, it is JUST WHAT WE DO out of existential worry, anxiety and fear of not being, of disappearing, of a need to be known by our selves and others.

Whoa. Somehow, for me, this depiction of distraction really took me to a whole other level, one I am not even sure I can describe. Somehow I feel like I already "knew" this intellectually, but her description of that thin fog, that layer, really hit my heart. I relaxed, instantly, realizing how much that meant I could stop struggling against certain stories. And yet, as is often the case with me and dharma, my heart also broke. "Oh no," I seemed to instantly conclude, "It really IS endless, isn't it?". Distraction isn't just, resistance isn't just, forgetting the instructions isn't just about memorizing the four noble truths, the eight fold path, the five part path, and so on. It's not just about awareness of certain moments (and yes, I thought - I realize now- I could let up sometimes and not others) it's actually constant. All the time. Again, what a huge deal and yet, it's also no big deal. If the work is going to go on forever, I'd best relax a bit and pace.

Pacing. This I have gotten better at just in the last week with Becky, with whom I have finally decided to run a 5k. Thanks to my students who are runners (you know who you are) who have and/or will take on bigger runs to inspire me, though you may not have known it, to run. I, too, have found I do best if I pace, settle in for the long haul. And yes, I just recently discovered that somehow I thought distraction, suffering, wasn't a long haul. It was something I could figure out in some areas, not others, and let the prior go while I mastered the more difficult latter bits.

Only that's not true. Secret, purportedly hidden bits from view have recently come back to light for me and lo I have discovered that seeds don't grow in the dark. Just because I let it sit for a bit doesn't mean I understand it any better now. Becky was quick to point out that this confusion (which happens to be about conflict with living family members) is actually a good sign - that some of me HAS changed and no longer feels congruent with this atrophied part "left behind". And yet, as always, the despair struggles to be stumped up with hope.

How about neither? What if either is a distraction? I gave the director of the Chicago Shambhala Center a letter tonight, requesting a meeting with Khandro Rinpoche. He said "She has a busy schedule, I'm not sure she'll be able to meet with you." And I smiled and gave him a slogan, familiar to Shambhalians, though only my mind said it, my heart of course hoping for her counsel: "No hope, no fear." He smiled back and tears entered my eyes as I smiled and left the room.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

I don’t remember

(side note: I am working my way through Natalie Goldberg's latest book as a part of compiling the best of this blog plus new writings together as a memoir. The title is "Old Friend from Far Away" and is one of her best books on how to write in years - very practical, all exercises, some commentary. It's been a joy to sluice through it, like pudding or smooth swimming. This is one of her prompts...)

I don’t remember anger.

It slips away like sand through a sieve. I am the desert or a shore, but dry, not wet, and the anger just drifts along in the wind, sometimes stirred, but often forming new shapes that have no resemblance to the original feeling. It is easy to feel mama like forgiveness, hard to recall the core inside which shapes all the shapes outside. I forget, I forget that burning ball, it’s not that I don’t remember, it’s that I forget, on purpose, put it away, deep on a shelf inside, and wallow on the outside, not wanting to look that far in.

Do I look in? Certainly. Most would say – my students, my friends, my lover, my therapist, even myself – would say I look farther in for longer than most do in a lifetime. And yet, here is this core, burning, feeding itself without my acknowledgement, as steady as my breath and often, quite often, stealing all of my oxygen so I can barely breath.

I got very angry with a friend when she admitted to me that she had spent years in a relationship with someone who abused her. This is hard for me to admit – took years to admit to myself. I knew I didn’t like the guy, often advised her to leave, but I certainly never knew it was that bad. This, she admitted, and then we bumped into him, just like that, in a coffeeshop in the Northeastern town where she lived, where in fact, she had moved out of the city to be with him, years before. The same town where his verbal abuse turned sexual and physical, until she left him one day. I don’t know why exactly I was so angry, and it was hard to admit it to her, but it finally burned up to the surface that day in the coffeeshop and it was impossible not to see it on my face. We stuttered the blocks home from the cafĂ©, me a few feet ahead, on the edge of tears, unable to look at her. Part of the anger was toward myself, yes, how could I have not seen, I was her bestest best friend, but mostly toward her. This went against – still goes against – everything feminist in me. Don’t blame the victim. It’s not her fault. And yet, there it was, embarrassing, a-political anger.

She hasn’t spoken to me in a couple of years, and although she claims it isn’t about this incident, I wouldn’t blame her if it were. How hard it must have been for her to admit to me that she had been broken, bruised and abused by the same person she went to for comfort more often than me. Betrayal in the first degree, then, in the second. To find anger where she expected comfort. “I never even told my mom,” she pleaded, and I still couldn’t look her in the eye.

“I found out that I am resistant to pretty much everything,” my former boss confessed yesterday at coffee with me. I had asked her how meditation was going – she had taken a course a couple of years ago, and really liked it. “I never have gotten into the habit since then, but even in that class I learned of some habits I wasn’t aware of, and also, this might sound funny, but some inner resources I never knew I had for when the chips are down.” It doesn’t sound funny at all – I love people’s caveats for stating vulnerable-making things. I do it too. We all do. “Like what,” I inquired after she admitted her resistance, adding “I never would have guessed that about you.”

She smiled, as we often do, revealing an Achilles Heel: “I say no right away to things, even if in my head. And I’ve come to realize that that is, well, just a habit. Sometimes it’s tied to my intuition – I really don’t want to do something, but often it’s just a knee-jerk reaction, and if I give myself space to overlook it, I can go on and say yes.” I smiled, secretly, I thought.

“What?” – she was embarrassed.

“I do the same thing.”

She was shocked, as I had been about her.

“Yep. I once had a friend, an editor, a co-writer, who told me bald-faced a few years ago that I say no too often, that folks won’t listen to me if I say no so much, and that I should take a step back and wait before answering if that is going to be my first response.”

We laughed. The things we think no one else is ever thinking.

Secrets like this make me so happy. I swear I could spend my whole life having conversations like this. I need to, in fact, because I forget them. Maybe this is why I write. To remember I am angry. To remember that I forget the most obvious part of every moment. To keep in mind, again and again, that resistance is just a habit, and beyond it lay the real reactions, the real interactions, as close to a real me as I, or anyone else, is ever going to get.

Our laughter was sincere, not awkward, as there was nothing left to cover up, and opened up a spacious field between us, where anger and fear danced like magic with the potential to do as much good as harm. I hope my other friend, the one still working through my anger, her anger, her former lover’s anger half a country away, was dancing in there too, in some small part.