Sunday, June 29, 2008

Watering the Flowers, Bells, Assisi, Peace

This morning, I watered the flowers on the porch and deck, and just as I turned off the hose, church bells started ringing. I stood, listening to the bells and the sound of birds chattering in the trees, breathing in summer, remembering that I’d also heard the bells last weekend. Late Saturday afternoon, walking my dog Louise in the park. I stopped then, too. I noticed the thwack of a tennis ball on the court behind me, the sound of kids splashing in the sprinkle pool, the whoosh of a car going by. It had been raining (again); it smelled green.

I was there, in the park, and also, suddenly, in Assisi, listening to the morning bells in my cool, shuttered hotel room and in the sunlit studio, painting, and mingled with the clink of silverware on china and the sound of laughter and dinner conversation as the sun turned pink and sank behind the spires of the church in the piazza below. I closed my eyes, and it seemed to me that I might as easily have been in one place as the other. Here or there. I felt that way again this morning.

Which made me think of the book I finished just before I went out to water the flowers—Peace, by Richard Bausch. It’s the kind of deceptively simple novel I love. Three soldiers sent into the mountains near Cassino in search of the retreating German army, an old Italian man of indeterminate loyalties their only guide. The main action of the novel covers one single night in which the soldiers, haunted by an elusive sniper, battle freezing rain, then snow; fear, fatigue, confusion; and, perhaps worst, tensions and animosities that have built up among themselves. Through it all, the main character, Corporal Marsdon, travels in his mind back and forth to Palermo, where he spent the blistering hot summer waiting for the invasion, and home, to his parent’s front porch on the evening of his departure for the war. “These parked cars,” he thinks, marveling at the immediacy of the memory, “this house, this sky. Twelve thirty-six Kearney Street, Washington, D.C.” Twilight, the cab waiting to take him to the station. His wife weeping silently, her hands on her swollen belly, her cigarette smoldering in the ashtray.

I never know whether to be amused or annoyed when someone says, usually in a superior tone of voice, “I never read fiction. I’d rather read something real.” But what could be more real than a good novel, especially if we want to go beyond the facts to the deeper truth of human existence. History books teach us about history. Novels teach us how history felt.

So I guess the connection between hearing the bells after watering my flowers and Richard Bausch’s wonderful new novel, Peace, is that the novel mirrors the feel of life lived. Who hasn’t had a moment like mine, lifting off from the mundane to another time and place? Who doesn’t live in countless time zones on any given day? Who doesn’t wonder at least once in a while what time really is?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing Teachers Writing

I tried to write this post yesterday. “I loved teaching the the “Creative Writing for Teachers” at the University of Indianapolis last week,” I began. “It was mostly young teachers, with a few seasoned ones in the mix—the kind you just know high school kids adore.”

Well, how boring is that, I thought?

I dithered a while, typing lame stuff, the only pleasure in it watching the words eat themselves backwards, letter-by-letter, when I held my finger on the “Delete” key. My mind wandered to Gordon Lish, the renegade writing teacher I took a few workshops with years ago, how he’d arrived for class in a safari outfit, complete with pith helmet,virtually pinning us all to our chairs with his intensity. Then I remembered the professor I had for nature studies when I was a freshman in college. I couldn’t think of her name, just that she was tiny, birdlike—and so manic with enthusiasm for nature that we giggled behind her back. The rumor was, she had to be committed to a mental institution every few years. We’d fantasize about the circumstances. Discovered at Lake Lemon scooping up minnows into a coffee can, wearing nothing but the rubber waders she so loved. Or building a nest in her basement with sticks and grasses, threaded through with shredded ribbons of the lab reports she was always saying she’d misplaced.

Ah, I thought. Intensity. Enthusiasm. Maybe there's something in that!

Full disclosure #1. The first line of this post says, “I tried to write this post yesterday.” But, actually, it’s still today. That is, at some point, I wrote that sentence, giving myself permission to quit and try again tomorrow because what I was writing was so wooden. With luck, the sentence would give me a jumping off point when I came back to it. But as soon as I gave mind a pass, it gave me Gordon Lish. Then the nature studies professor (along with a vivid memory of a field trip at Lake Lemon, Friday, fall of 1965, blue sky, sparkling water, leaves just starting to turn—and my utter boredom with it. I didn’t give a hoot minnows or leaves or who got to wear the stupid waders All I could think about was getting back to campus where the weekend was beginning without me.)

Hmmm, I thought.

Memorable (for better or worse) teachers. The feel of being eighteen, the self-absorption, the natural resistance to being taught.

Trick your mind into thinking you’re giving it a pass, and suddenly—who knows why?—it wants to please you. But not so much that it gives you everything. Just a few pieces of the puzzle.

Full disclosure #2. Was that field trip actually on a Friday? I have no idea. I went back and put in Friday because everybody knows what Friday feels like—well, except crazy people, like Lish and the professor who lose all track of time—and I thought the word “Friday” would create that sense of agitation on the page. That, added to one of the fundamental truths of adolescence which is, whether we like it or not, for most students, school matters because it’s where their friends are.

If I want to make an essay out of this, I really should cut the nature professor, whose enthusiasm came without any insight into how to teach what she loved. And the Gordon Lish stuff, too, because his intensity was mean--a you’re it-you’re-not-intensity that did more harm than good—at least for me, at the time, because in his view I wasn’t. Though I have to admit that, after the trauma of that wore off, I realized I’d learned some amazing things about writing from him--which is a whole other thing.

Anyway. I didn't cut the nature professor or Gordon Lish because I (suddenly) realized that I wanted the post to feel like process, to feel like what I had wanted the students in “Creative Writing for Teachers” to understand about how writing works. You write crap, you cast around for ideas; some work, some don’t. You keep going.

Eventually, you figure out what you really want to say, which is (it turns out)We teach ourselves.

Ha! I bet I know what you guys in the class are thinking if you're reading this.

She said, “Clarity is everything!” She told us Tolstoy himself said, “Clarity is beauty.” A sentence should be clear, reduced lowest common denominator so that it can mean only one thing—and “We teach ourselves” doesn’t fill the bill.

But I’m breaking the rule here because, in this case, I don’t want “We teach ourselves” to mean one thing. I want it to resonate, I want all three meanings (and maybe others I’m not seeing yet).

Teaching writing, we teach ourselves...to teach writing. Every year, we see what works and what doesn’t, and we revise what and how we teach the next year, just as we revise our own writing, never getting it quite right, knowing it’s impossible to get it absolutely right, but each time getting a little close to giving our students the gift of what we know.

Teaching writing, we teach ourselves...to write. Trying so hard to narrow that gap between what we know about writing and what we’re able to give students/what they’re able to receive, we become better writers ourselves.

Teaching writing, we teach our (true)selves. If we love writing, our students know. If we write, if we are engaged in the writing process ourselves, they know. Teenagers have the greatest crap detectors in the universe. If we’re faking passion for writing, they see right through it, and if we expect them to struggle through a difficult process that we’re unwilling to struggle through ourselves, we might as well just go ahead and say what they’re already thinking, “Ha. It’s don’t do as I do, do as I say. As usual.”

I did love teaching “Creative Writing for Teachers” at the University of Indianapolis last week. I loved the teachers in the class, who cared about their students so much that they spent a week of their summer vacation learning how to help them write better. I loved watching them struggle with writing and come out on the other end with something that surprised them. I loved the way the exercises cracked the world open for some of them, bringing new insights to teaching and to their personal lives.

Most of all, I loved watching them write—heads bent, hands moving, the only sound the whisper of pen on paper, the click of keys—learning, maybe remembering, the real addiction of writing: when we’re writing, we’re not here. We’re in a world all our own. A world where people and places we love come back to us, where past is present and the present casts itself forward into “What if?” A world where nothing ever ends.

Whoa! I had no idea it was going there.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Packing Dreams

I have a kind of recurring dream that always involves packing—or, more specifically, the panic of last-minute packing and the dawning consequences of what I have forgotten. In them, I go from breathless, panicky anxiety that makes my mind go blank to calmer, resigned anxiety as I go forward in no way equipped for my travels. In last night’s dream, as usual, I couldn’t decide which clothes to take. Then I agonized over which cloth bag to take in case I needed extra space coming home. Leaving for the airport, I grabbed coat—a grubby camel coat that didn’t fit quite right, and was pitched immediately into a state of regret. My black coat was so much nicer, but it was too late to go back and get it.

There was a wild ride to the airport and questions about what the best strategy would be once we got there. I knew—weirdly, from another packing dream I had long ago—that there was a secret place in the international terminal where you could go and they’d take you right to the plane. You just had to find it.

When I got to the airport, I couldn’t figure out how to get to the gate. I went up and down a few sets of escalators, looking for the place that led to the international terminal, but nothing was familiar. When I did figure out which way to go, I had to go to the bathroom. After which, I realized I’d forgotten to bring something to eat on the plane and found myself in the staff room at Broad Ripple High School, searching for peanut butter crackers I might have left when I taught there years ago. No luck. I headed for the gate. I was wearing idiotic shoes, high-heeled clogs, which I could barely walk in. I took the cotton bag from my suitcase and put the shoes in it so I could run—and took off after a woman who seemed to know what she was doing.

When she reached a huge brick building, someone opened the door and let her in. She disappeared. I went to the door, knocked, and a woman attendant opened it. I could see that the building was a hangar full of airplanes, all lined up, exiting at a regular pace. She asked where I was going. “Paris,” I said. But I couldn’t remember the airline, flight number, or exact time of departure. Just that it was leaving…soon. She scanned a list, but couldn’t find it. She didn’t seem at all perturbed. “We’ll just go look for it,” she said.

Walking through the hangar, dwarfed by the gargantuan jets, I remembered that it was an Alitalia flight. And I wasn’t going to Paris, I was going to Rome. “Oh!” she said, as if it were perfectly normal not to remember where you were going. She headed directly for an Alitalia plane at the far end of a long row of planes, knocked on the side of it, and a stewardess opened a small door on the side. When the woman explained that I needed to get on the plane, the stewardess lifted a screen over the opening so I could climb in, dragging my suitcase behind me—realizing, as I burst into the aircraft that I’d forgotten my sandals and running shoes and, worse, I’d forgotten to bring a book.

I stowed my suitcase on a shelf, the plane began to move, and there was a moment of panic when one of the passengers realized that the stewardess had forgotten to close the opening. Meanwhile, I walked through the plane looking for a seat. I found my friend, Pat, who was deep in conversation with some women around her. “Look,” she said—and pushed a button on her seat. There was a whooshing sound and then I saw what looked like a long tube with a row of windows, a person framed in each one—some looking rather bewildered at finding themselves there, being viewed by other passengers. Pat explained that this was special seating where people could get whatever they wanted. There was no seat for me anywhere near where she was sitting, so I wandered some more. I was still wandering as the plane taxied down the runway, and then I woke up.

Of course, dream was about being overwhelmed with things to do. The packing dreams are always about that. But, while these dreams send me, already anxious, into the day, I still love discovering the little kernels of reality in them, pondering their connections, and marveling at how they glued themselves into a kind of story. Some of them from this dream were:

* My every-summer dilemma about comfortable shoes
* A news photo I saw of passengers looking out of the windows of an airplane, watching soldiers unload a flag-draped coffin from the hold.
* Seeing my friend, Pat, the night before in the parking lot at the Writers’ Center with the members of her poetry group.
* The fact that I’d eaten peanut butter crackers for dinner that same night.
* The fact that, recently, I’d been talking to someone about teaching at Broad Ripple.
* Reading a David Sedaris piece about Paris, and the fact that I’m booked on an Alitalia flight to Rome in August.

Thinking of how dreams work is the best metaphor for the way stories gather that I know. All that stuff in your head—memories, details, bits of dialogue, sounds, ideas, photographs, anything, everything— bouncing around like the ping-pong balls in one of those lottery “barrels,” and—who knows why?—a certain set of set of them presents itself, and you work to connect them until solve the puzzle of the story you’ve been given.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Up in Michigan


In the late 1970’s we discovered skiing and, shortly after, a funky little ski area up in Michigan called Caberfae. We’d drive up most Friday nights in the winter, all bundled up but freezing, nonetheless, in our virtually heatless orange and white Volkswagen van, arriving at the Eidelweiss Lodge well after midnight. But we were always first in line when the lifts started running at 9. We loved standing at the top of the hill in the cold crisp air, the pines hazy with frost, then zooming down the freshly groomed slope to the T-bar…to do it again and again and again. We never quit (except for a quick lunch) until the ski patrol stood at the top of the slope at 4:00 repeating, “Last run, last run.”

We skied at Caberfae so much that we made friends among the locals, and we hung out with them, evenings, in the bar at the lodge, where a band (renowned for its lead singer having once been acquainted with the early sixties singer, Del Shannon) did a show every Saturday night, complete with flame-throwers that pulsed wildly to the beat of the music and that I realize now were so dangerous that God himself must have taken on the responsibility to keep us all from being burnt to a crisp.

When our friends, Carol and Waddy, invited us to come up for the Fourth of July weekend, we jumped at the chance to see the ski area in a different season—and we fell in love all over again. The white world of winter had turned green, green, green—from the leaves of countless different kinds of trees to the yellow-green weave of meadow grasses, blue-green pine needles and gray green water. The Christmas lights were still strung across the street in Harrietta, the tiny town where they lived, perfect for creating a festive atmosphere for the town dance on the Fourth of July.

The Saturday night before we left, we went out with our friends, along with Carol's friend George and his brand new wife. About to move from Detroit to Washington D.C., they were in town to make arrangements to put George’s ski chalet up for sale. “What are you asking?” Steve wondered. “Forty-five,” George said. “But he’d take thirty,” said his new wife with a sly smile. Steve laughed. “Shit, for thirty I’ll take it!” he said. Then, in the morning, woke, turned to me, and asked, “Uh, did I buy a house last night?”

Of course, we didn’t really have to buy George’s chalet, just like he didn’t have to sell it for the price his cute new wife had quoted. But we went to look at it the next day, did the math, and figured out we could (just barely) afford it, and George, probably wisely, since it was clear that his wife was anxious for him to dump the house where he’d entertained a legendary number of women before marrying her, decided to let it go at that price. So we found ourselves in possession of George’s bachelor pad—complete with orange shag carpet, beds, dressers, and a fully furnished kitchen. Fortunately, the white leather sectional and moose head were not included. (What in the world did he do with them?)

It’s been an alternate existence for us ever since, a place where time slows and we remember what matters. Sometimes I go there alone to write...day after delicious day after day with nothing but words! Inevitably, this real alternate world make its way into the alternate world of my fiction. Emma, the narrator of Everything You Want, flees there when she leaves college. “It’s nearly midnight when I get to our little ski house,” she says. “It’s so quiet here. The sky is black, black, black, sprinkled with stars, and standing beneath them, looking up, I feel lighthearted, full of good intentions.”

Exactly as I feel myself, arriving with time and solitude to write stretching out before me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Real World Productions Presents...

The latest "Survival" show, "Teachers."

Three businessmen and three businesswomen will be dropped into public school classroom for one school year. The business people will be provided with a copy of their school district's curriculum and a class of 28 - 32 students. (For high school, make that 23-32 students per class times four, maybe five classes a day.)

Each class will have a minimum of five learning-disabled children, three with A.D.D., one gifted child, and two who speak limited English. Three students will be labeled with severe behavior problems.

All business people must complete lesson plans at least 3 days in advance with annotations for curriculum objectives and modify, organize, or create their materials accordingly. They will be required to teach students, handle misconduct, implement technology, document attendance, write referrals, correct homework, make bulletin boards, compute grades, complete report cards, document benchmarks, communicate with parents, and arrange parent conferences.

They must also stand in the doorway between class changes to monitor the hallways. In addition, they will complete fire drills, tornado drills, and [Code Red] drills for shooting attacks each month.

They must attend workshops, faculty meetings, and attend curriculum development meetings They must also tutor students who are behind and strive to get the non-English speaking children proficient enough to take all of the state tests.

If the business person is sick or having a bad day, h/she must not let it show. Each day, without fail, h/she must provide an educationally stimulating environment to motivate students at all times. If all students do not wish to cooperate, work, or learn, the teacher will be held responsible.

The business people will be expected to spend week-night evenings grading papers and preparing lesson plans. They will have access to the public golf course on the weekends, but with their new salary, they may not be able to afford it.

There will be no access to vendors who want to take them out to lunch, and lunch will be limited to thirty minutes, which is not counted as part of their workday. The business people will be permitted to use a student restroom, as long as another survival candidate can supervise their class.

If the copier is operable, they may make copies of necessary materials before or after school. However, they cannot surpass their monthly limit of copies. The business people must continually advance their education, at their expense, and on their own time.

The winner of this season of "Survivor" will be allowed to return to his/her job.

(This came to me by way of the internet, and I couldn’t resist sharing it. Happy summer, all you teachers out there!)