Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Crawfish Boil at my sister's house in New Orleans, May 2009.  The cracking and peeling and sucking of the heads went on for hours.  Mmmmmm!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Finding Time and Strength to Write

Well, I lied about taking a break from the blog.  I'm thinking a lot these days about writing and how to structure my own life such that I nurture my writing life.  Since I've become a director of an MFA program (4 years ago), I've found it increasingly difficult to find the time I once was able to find for writing.  It's not just the time that the job takes, it's the fact that I can't leave it at the university.  It haunts me at home and in my dream life, and there's always something that needs to be done, or some small crisis that needs attending. 

Part of this is my own personality, of course.  I'm something of a perfectionist, and I really care about my program and students.  Building a program is not unlike writing a book, except that you are creating a space for others to flourish again and again, not just the one time they read the book.  These last four years have been rewarding in the sense that I feel I've been giving back some of what I've gotten from the world.   And I'm a pretty good administrator.

But positions like the one I have should be rotated, I think, especially if you want the writer who is in the position to stay alive.  I'm beginning to feel that I need to rotate out for a little while.  

Aside from the issues of free time  anyone might feel in a job that demands a lot of your energy, both intellectual and emotional, another issue for me is simple organization.  Sometimes the best way for me to get a poem or essay written is to put it on a To-Do list and make sure it finds a place in my calendar.  In fact, this is the best advice I could give to someone stuggling with finding the time to write:  put it in your calendar.  No matter how busy you are you, you can always find an hour to write, and if you schedule it when your body and mind are sharpest--for me it's the morning--you give yourself a better chance that you'll write something good.

Sharing your life with someone can also affect the kind of energy you bring to writing. When I lived alone it was easy to get up in the morning, grab my coffee, journal or laptop, and spend the first hour or so of the day writing before any other concerns infected the spirit of writing.  But now that I'm married to a journalist who likes to sit in bed with me in the morning and read his email and check out the international newspapers online, I find myself doing that--reading email and checking the news headlines--for about an hour instead of spending that time writing.   For my husband it's a shared time of bonding, and I feel that too and would hate to lose it--we do talk in the midst of sending emails and checking the news.  But it's also lost time for me because I do have to leave and go to the office to do administrative work, so I've lost that hour of creative work.  He's a freelancer and when I'm off to work he stays home and writes, and since he's a journalist, his searching of the newspapers is relevant.  Not always so for me.

Finally, there is the issue of what to write and what's worth writing about.  There can be times when you order yourself to write, when you write it on a calendar, you put it on your to-do list (Write that Brazil poem this Saturday!!!!) or when you negotiate hard-won space and time with your partner only to find that nothing comes, that nothing seems worth writing about, that nothing seems to inspire you. Then, I think, it's time to get at the root of the problem.  

People talk about "writer's block," but I think feeling stymied or paralyzed with writing is a side-effect of something else.  If you order yourself to write and you don't do it, well, it's like trying to stop drinking cold turkey without trying to understand the spiritual desires and other needs that drove you to drink in the first place.  

So an important step in trying to identify what's causing a slow-down in writing is to think about what's missing in your life.  If a poem or a story or essay is like a plant--let's make it a rose bush--what does it take to make it flourish?  Sun, just enough, water, just enough, good soil.  

When you are having trouble writing ask yourself about your sun, your water and your soil. And remember that we are all different and have different needs.  What are your needs?

For me it's time, space and the freedom and tools to explore what really matters in my life and the world.  And sometimes the news, email, facebook, it's all too much information, too much communication.  I still believe that the best writing gets done in a space of utter aloneness.

Maybe we don't need to "keep up" with everything--see Pico Iyer's comments on this in "The Joy of Less" :


Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I've decided to take a break from the blog for a bit in the summer to work on some poems.  I'm finding the need to work in the poetic form.  Although nonfiction is just as creative in many ways, there is something about the ability of poetry to incorporate wild or random elements that draws me to it.  There's also not the demand for literal truth that can seem oppressive after a while.  
Poetry has a smaller audience, but it has always seemed to me a great art form for spiritual growth and investigation.  

I've been working a little bit with a new tarot card deck (thus the previous post on the Eight of Swords) and have the idea to write some poems riffing off of certain cards and landscapes for a book. I'd also like to experiment with different voices in poems.  Next term I'm teaching a poetry workshop that will focus on persona poems and revisionist myth and fairytale poems, and it will be fun writing along with the students.  Maybe we'll use tarot cards as well!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Eight of Swords

I am walking through an utterly destroyed landscape, a forest of trees and swords.  The trees are dead, and branches and swords lie on the ground.  Only an owl, a snake and a bat are alive.  If I could see them I would be happy, but I can' see anything.  Someone has blindfolded and bound me.  My feet hurt because I'm walking on swords.  I am aching all over, but I want to find my way out.  The moon seems full of energy but I cannot see it either.  I will have to listen to the snake, the bat  and the owl, creatures of the night, to find my way out.   I am determined that hurt, hurting, blind and bound, I will make my way out. 

It could be that a hurricane has come through this place.

Letting my Hair Go Gray

For the last year I have been letting my hair "grow out."  No more highlights, no more trying to hide the fact that my beautiful brown hair is turning gray.  While this decision has had a positive effect on my pocketbook (chemical hair treatments at a good salon can run $150 per treatment  if you get a cut and style as well), it's not been easy.

There's no getting around the fact that I look older with gray hair, even though I love the way it's streaked in the front, almost as though I'd been hit by lightening.  I would love for the gray to be utterly white, then I'd like like the bride of Frankenstein or at least Susan Sontag.   I look at photos of Terry Tempest Williams a lot for inspiration: she's let her hair go completely white, and she can't be much older than I am (54).  

And that's the point, really, to look older.  I don't want to be one of those women forever wanting to look younger than what they are, forgetting that we have a responsibility as the elders in our communities.  If we neglect mentoring younger women, if we want to be like them and not models for them, to whom will they turn when they begin to age and need to find positive role models? 

Still, when I recently traveled to Brazil with 10 beautiful young women about the age my son is, I felt keenly my age and how I had moved on to another country not only literally, but emotionally.

The translator who accompanied us on the trip is around my age, and we had lots of great conversations about aging.  She is Brazilian, but has chosen to live in the U.S. even though most of her family is still in Brazil.  She said this is because a woman past menopause is "nothing" in traditional Brazilian society.  People just don't look at you if you are older, she said.  Both she and Rita, the woman with the dreadlocks in the previous post (who is also around my age) dye their hair for this reason.  It's one thing for Rita, who is black and comes from a favela and still has the accent of someone who comes from a favela, to be discriminated against because of race and class, but it's quite another to be discriminated against because of age.  

It's inspiring to me that the situation is quite different in the Candemble religion as well as in the quilombo communities we visited in Brazil.  There, the oldest women in the village are honored and asked regularly for their blessings.  It is clearly a matriarchy, and I felt empowered to be among so many beautiful and wise older women.  I could see, from my students' journals that they perceived in very powerful ways, the beauty of these women (in the photos from my post yesterday).  

I am happy to be employed by a university that has a woman for a president, a woman for a vice president, and women in many of the powerful positions on campus.  Every day, when I walk our campus, I can feel that I am appreciated, that I matter, that every gray hair I earn will be respected here.  I just wish that I didn't  have to stay on my campus or go to a remote quilombo in Brazil to feel honored as an older woman in this culture.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Women with Gris Gris: Brazil

I recently returned from a trip to Salvador, Brazil with students. One of the things that struck me the most while there were the women we met, especially the older women.

While there we visited a quilombo, a rural village founded originally by runaway slaves and in the case of the community we visited, the Engenho de Ponte community, also the site of a Candomble house.   The woman to the left is a rezadeira, or healer for the community who demonstrated to us how she makes her various syrups and potions, and gave us a taste of her syrup.  She struck me as incredibly beautiful and wise, and I struggled to capture that beauty in this photo.  
Both shy and strong in her knowledge, she reminded me a bit of my now gone grandmother.  

The woman in the middle at the top was the mother and leader of one of the villages in the community.  She is 94.  We sat on her porch while she told us stories of how the village came to be, of dreams and visitations from spirits.  She is the keeper and teller of stories for the community.  Earlier, when we had gathered together with members of the community in a circle and asked for blessings from whatever god or spirit we cared to, the children and members of this woman's village asked for her blessings.  It was then I knew I was in a truly foreign country.  My own family and culture honors traditional youth and beauty so much that honoring and asking for blessings from an elder would never happen.

The woman at the top left was the "mother" of the Candomble house, Mama Giovani, and is responsible for the spiritual life of the members of her community.  I found her story to be inspirational as well: she left the village to become a teacher, but returned because she was needed and felt a call. She said it wasn't easy to return, but her large and generous presence and spirit filled every space she walked. 

Finally there was Rita, the director of the Bahia Street project we visited (top right, dreadlocks).  Born in a favela herself, a practioner of Candomble, she has risen to become the director of a non-profit organization that focuses on helping young girls escape the cycle of poverty and violence that awaits many of those born in favelas  in Salvador.

This post is mostly about getting these photos up--trying to figure out how to post photos.  I will write more about what struck a chord in me with respect to these women in my next post.