How To Avoid Blogging: Have Something Difficult to Say

I’ve been looking at a pile of scribbled notes and dog-eared copies of The New Yorker for some time now. The issue of gun control has been weighing heavily on me, but I did not want to simply state my position or argue a point that many people may already have made many times over. It took a book on war to bring me around to what I’ve realized is the fundamental focus of my thoughts and my desire to write about this topic for other writers.

As many of you know, I’ve been very slowly going through How Yoga Works and reveling in the, well, revelations. My current mantra is “Plant the Seeds.” Yes, the title of one of my earlier blogs and directly related to that book. When I feel sad, or more importantly, overwhelmed and scared as I am prone to be, I pause my thoughts and say “plant the seeds.” Basically, just changing the thoughts but with the more important component of the new thought taking hold and growing into a more positive and fruitful behavior over the long run. I’m telling myself for the first time ever that nothing has to be the way I see it–at least not the negative. A challenge should be met, not eluded. OK, OK, enough, you get it already.

So, how do I go from How Yoga Works to addressing gun control as a moral and ethical requirement of us all? By reading Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse. Big change in content, huh? I have a long-standing interest in history, especially war. It began more as an interest in how the areas we now call specific countries have formed and changed over the centuries in direct relation to the wars waged on or by them.

When I imagine myself as a draft-age male in 20th century America, I especially shudder at the prospect of going to Vietnam. I have no doubt that I would not have survived. At least not intact. The more I know of that war, the more horrified I am by the volume of atrocity unleashed in an offensive measure. I’m not saying bombing Hiroshima was a righteous act, but let’s agree that the U.S. would not have had to face making the choice if the Germans, then the Japanese did not swing first. Feel free to disagree. My point is that I cannot really comprehend the disbelief that people have over the fight against gun control when texts like Kill Anything show us how absolutely disinterested our government has been in our well being before and how many soldiers were not appalled or horrified by the orders they received to “kill ’em all.” When you note how much lower on the scale of value women, children, and the elderly have been than the average male, the surprise should be even less. Rape is a weapon of war and that has been wielded as readily as guns and grenades. Now, anatomy is one thing. It is what it is. But we can limit access to extraneous weapons and punish the inappropriate use of both. Hunting and lovemaking really cannot be compared equally with slaughter and rape.

My yoga teacher reminds me often that we all have our own universe to manage. Not that we stand alone, but we can only tend to our own world. We can plant the seeds and try to help others tend to their own goals so that all of us work in conscious harmony, but “we cannot plant the seeds for others” as she likes to say. I really understand now what “everyone in their own time” means. So, the discussion of each person’s rights is what I keep coming back to. How is one person’s rights more important than the safety and rights of the whole? Let’s face it, I have the right to live, don’t you? If restricting gun ownership and the type of guns allowed in public means I have a greater chance of exercising my right to live, then what is the problem?

If you are wondering what my world is like–how I’ve come to my perspective—I’ll tell you. My husband and I are gun owners. My husband hunts. We don’t buy meat raised in the realms of agribusiness, but we’ve not gotten to the point of becoming vegetarians. We would rather do without though than buy a cellophane and Styrofoam package of questionable quality meat from a questionable source. We plant the seeds of ethical farming even if we have not–yet–gotten to the point of sparing some animal lives. Still, I have no problem having to restrict access to our guns if it means preventing someone from accidentally or purposely harming others. I would love to have a central armory where we have to house our weapons and sign them out. If you are not planning on committing  a crime, what’s the problem with structure? Your freedom? I have freedom too: To live safely. Really, most of the NRA types sound like kindergarteners who were absent the day they learned about sharing and taking turns. I mean, really, you HAVE to have 100 rounds in an automatic or semiautomatic weapon at arm’s length? Are you sure you are not planning on committing a crime?

The April 15th issue of The New Yorker, has an article in the “The Talk of the Town” section entitled “Shots in the Dark.” The main question here about stepping up to the plate about gun control seems to be about taking risks. Who is willing to stretch out his/her neck and stand up for common sense and the right for the rest of us to live? Perhaps we are being abandoned because some members of Congress are not willing to risk losing their seats in the next election? Perhaps the Senate would not uphold any substantial changes. They like the cushy lives that playing with the pro-gun boys support. The column mentions Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s position (of all people!): ‘[A] right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose’ is not how the Second Amendment should be read. It does not “confer” this unadulterated view of absolute freedom. Last I checked, absolute freedom from control was anarchy or, no, wait, infancy.

Is this a new ideology for me? No. One of my most vivid memories of my freshman year of college is unwaveringly arguing against the whole of my first-semester composition class the point that I did not mind stricter criminal laws if that kept the predators and other unsavory characters behind bars longer. I did not mind having to watch my own behavior if that meant others stayed in jail. Yet, the rest of the class wanted as much freedom as possible even if it meant less jail time, or none, for offenders. Wow. I mean, I’m not saying we need to live in a police state, but why is it so hard to be responsible for your own actions and look out for your neighbor? And, no, I’m not saying our justice system isn’t damaged, but let’s work on the whole, not just give up and let everyone run amok.

Bottom line: I’m willing to curtail some of my own freedoms in order to ensure that the bad seeds are thwarted as much as possible. I’m also for reading as much about as many things as possible so that my range of knowledge includes seemingly disparate subjects such as spirituality and war crimes.

Of course, nothing will end violence, but everything can be done to limit it and access to its most effective tools. No one can plant the seeds for cruel, troubled, or misguided souls, but we have to do our best to keep these people limited to small container gardens until they are ready to do their share. We don’t need a whole field of perennials setting the wrong seeds on the wind.

Plant the Right Seeds

Plant the right seeds in your students as you endeavor to plant them in yourself.

What seeds? Well, I’m still reading How Yoga Works–very carefully and slowly. I’m savoring every bit of it and doing my best to restructure my own perspectives on life by practicing what the instructor in the text, Miss Friday, directs her students to do. The seeds are of course not actual plant seeds, but metaphors for right behavior. Good habits take root and grow and these beneficial plants then spread more seeds. Hopefully, you can influence others to rotate their own inner crops and let the bad seeds die off while the good hold fast and flourish.

I’m doing my best to crowd out the bad seeds that many events and choices in my life sewed deeply. The more I read this text, the more often I actually cry. I am in mourning for what I did not know and for the things I cannot undo. I’d have written “yet” and the end of the last sentence, but I’m learning that there are some things we cannot change because it takes the participation of others to allow the soil to become fertile for change. Well, maybe the “yet” still stands. The others involved may come to their own desire for change and allow me to participate.

Planting the seeds sounds easy enough, right? It depends upon where you are in your own stage of life. My current thought process as a professor and tutor is to try to offer some of the wisdom I am endeavoring to retain and practice to my students and hope that these seeds take hold somehow, someway, someday. I can ‘t make them be ready, but I can’t cheat them of the chance to learn if they are ready now. I don’t presume to be a master by any means, but I can’t be anything but an observer if I don’t act consciously.

Planting the seeds in my college students is a tricky matter. Not everyone is in my classroom for the same reasons. Some are there under duress frankly. The composition courses I teach are mandatory. Not everyone likes to write. Fair enough. Not everyone is in school to learn and many are there to “buy” a degree so they can be “qualified” for a job. What they learn seems to be secondary to the framed paper on the wall. I have to weed through (no pun intended) and see if I can find a way to reach them all–to help them value themselves enough to value what they can learn even in core requirements seemingly unrelated to their major.

There are times when students are unable to meet the requirements of my course or focus regularly on tutoring sessions. The reasons can range from not being properly prepared educationally, to not caring enough to want to bother, to not having the confidence to think they can do this. Maybe life threw them a physical or emotional curve ball and they just don’t know how to regroup. At these times, what seed is it that I should plant to help them for their sake?

It would be easy to let them make their decisions and let them take the consequences. So I could let a student who has not participated all semester suddenly drop a bulk of back logged coursework on me so he can graduate on time. What about the quality of the work? I could work hard to lead him to the good grade and go easy on him because life just got harder or his GPA is balancing on my final click of the mouse. Who are these decisions really benefiting? These last options seem pretty cushy really for the student. But what about real life after school?

Let me tell you about real life. I was a student. I had serious setbacks. I did not get coddled. I had to take the hits, financial and educationally to catch up. I had to face the reality that no one was obligated to change standards and requirements just because I could not meet them. Sound harsh? Sound like a grudge? Sound like I’m taking it out on them? Nope. My falsely smoothing the path now will plant seeds of false expectations for later and that, my friends, would be a disaster. My bleeding heart now could lead to a lost job and lost opportunities later on. I must plant the right seeds for their sake.

This does not make me very popular sometimes with parents or colleagues. Often, their goals are for the student to stay in the time frame expected and with the grades demanded rather than earned. Somehow, education for education’s sake is getting more and more lost in the mix. Colleges tend to worry more about attrition rates rather than the reputation that comes with the quality of learning the person holding a degree with the school’s name represents. There is no big picture. No thoughts about the reputation of the family or the university later on down the road when a degree from this place is not respected and when the person fails at bigger challenges later on. The seeds planted so often are for now and not always for the student. My desire is to have my students and clients value now, for the sake of now. I want them to value what they have in hand and demand of themselves that they earn their grades, degree, and respect the right way. I plant the seeds of responsibility and reality while doing my best to overtly acknowledged their discomfort and fear.

I do care, that is why I challenge the  shortcuts and compromises. I hold onto the good seeds that were planted in me early on and the seeds I am endeavoring to plant now. These were and are very much about self respect and earning–not demanding–something and having to redo or revisit what I could not complete the first time around. While I mourn for the losses that the bad seeds produced, I look forward to letting go of them and continuing to plant the right seeds in the fallow soil. With any luck, some will be cast beyond my own fields.

It All Depends on How You Read It

Reading is the necessary rehearsal or preparation for the act and art of writing. But so is listening. Really, have you ever just had to put a book down and give up on it? Even some of the greatest authors just make it hard to sit still and pay attention for long. And by “long” I don’t mean the “short attention span theater” type that has a million devices dinging and buzzing all around, but the avid reader who looks forward to the quiet moments alone with a book. The first author I think of when I admit great admiration of, but little patience, for is Salman Rushdie, one of the most wondrous minds of our time. How he can write so extensively about so many disparate character types and subjects, not to mention locations and cultures, is beyond my comprehension. How do I know he is so wonderful if I just admitted that his verbosity makes me squirm? I LISTEN to him.

Audio books are not a new phenomenon nor are they hard to find, but did you ever really consider that the medium through which the story is delivered can affect the enjoyment factor and even affect comprehension? Of course it can. Professional storytellers are professionals for the very reason that they are able to deliver a tale through the expert command of language, inflection, diction, pace, and tone. Now, these vocal skills are enhanced by body language. Take away the body language, and you have only the one tool left to catch the audience. The voice.

I adore listening to Rushdie read his books. I can listen to him for the hours it takes to complete a novel and even look forward to a re-listen. I believe that his ability to capture the reader lies in the fact that he is the only one who has the personal connection to the text to deliver it as it should be with all the inflections, ironies, pain, and even objective distance that a reader must provide the listener. This is not to say that only the author can engage a listening reader, but the voice artist must seem to fully immerse himself in the telling.

Neil Gaiman is another author whom I cannot help but be captivated by when he reads. I don’t think I could listen to anyone else read his works though. He has such a wonderful and highly individual speaking voice that I’m definitely prejudiced in favor of his voice being the only one for my ears. I will also add that I can sit with Gaiman’s texts easily. He does not factor into the “can only listen to or I’m out” category.

The first time I actually listened to Rushdie, he was read by one of my favorite actors Art Malik whom I remember best for playing Hari Kumar in Masterpiece Theatre’s production of The Jewel in the Crown, in, gads, 1984 (I’m feeling old right now). It might have been that I was inclined to enjoy the text hearing that lovely voice of Malik’s, but I don’t think he would have lasted if he was not sincere in his verbal interpretation of the text as a whole. Once I listened to Rushdie read some of his other works though, I decided it was Rushdie or no one.

Perhaps it is simply that I can picture Malik, or Rushdie, or Gaiman as I hear them. Perhaps the visual aspect of storytelling does come in to play here as well. I envision them performing. That is something to consider. Regardless, while I’ve covered the easy part—listening to famous authors—let’s think about how to find new authors in the same way. With the little time that I have to read or re-read even the texts that I have to spend time with for my work, I find it hard to get to the pile of those I am interested in for pure enjoyment. And how do I find new works to add to my list of “must reads”? I LISTEN to these new voices. I make the time to go to readings and observe the writer deliver her work. Even truncated tales or works in progress are worth the time spent if the author can draw you in and make you want him to finish the work soon or deliver a signed copy into your hands before the night is through.

My recent personal literary resolution is to find as many local authors as I can and familiarize myself with their works. I say “personal” because my work as a professor (adjunct assistant, read “broke but happy”) and tutor does not always allow me to be as exclusive in my choices. A couple of weeks ago, I found a flier on the counter in my husband’s gallery in Flemington, NJ (small plug: Kissimmee River Pottery; www.riverpots.com). It announced that the SOMI Fine Art Gallery, just down the sidewalk from our studio, was to host an evening of readings by David Galef, Mia Siegert, and Cassia Rainne (aka Keisha Thorpe). This announcement came just in time. As my yoga instructors always remind me, when events or experiences are ready for you and you ready for them, they will become available. Well, we were ready for each other. I’d been dying to learn again. I spend so much time teaching writing and being isolated with my own projects that I begin to miss the thrill of being guided by someone and of sharing ideas. I try to encourage my students to find themselves in even the least desired or interesting assignments they must complete. At the least, I tell them, you don’t have to love writing, but you must be able to respect your own language and ideas to present them clearly and fully. That goes for fiction and nonfiction. All well and good, but where is my guru and guide these days? It’s good that I never feel competitive with other writers. I feel inspired by the gifted ones, hopeful for the weakest or beginners of the group. The point is finding the right group and, on this particular night, the right group came to me.

*Galef is a prolific author and is currently professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University. I picked up a copy of his latest book of short stories My Date with Neanderthal Woman after he read to us about a kleptomaniac as described to us by her loving husband. It was amusing, enthralling, bizarre, and poignant. As now go through my notes from the night, scribbled on the back of the flier for the readings, I remember something very interesting about this couple, the kleptomaniac and the CPA. Well, I’ll start with the fact that the husband is a CPA. Order vs. chaos and unpredictability? Too obvious? I feel it to be more amusing than predictable. While Galef lists off the strange behaviors of this wife and her obsession, which happens to spiral inwards and affect her husband’s own belongings, he refers at times to Plato. This switch from mundane weirdness to cerebral ruminations did not isolate those who had not taken Philosophy 101 or one of The Great Courses on DVD. His references guided us to an understanding of the characters and Galef himself, rather than weeding us out and making us feel embarrassed. I feel that a great read should of course contain believable events and that the historical, literary, philosophical references, etc., must be accurate. But must it necessarily require extensive research for the reader and audience to understand all references? No. Galef helps us out knowing we might need it and without holding a grudge.

It was freeing to hear him acknowledge that the works in My Date with Neanderthal Woman have no particular connecting thread. What a relief to know that not all writing must be so perfectly definable. Let it flow.

Wow. Yes, I am partial to the short story form, but with so many volumes of work competing for my attention, listening to Galef put me over the edge and into ownership of his text. I found him in it as he read. Galef enjoyed the text as much as we loved giving him our attention.

Mia Siegert graduated with an MFA from Goddard College and has been teaching fiction courses at Southern New Hampshire University as well as various locations in Hunterdon Co., New Jersey. Her bio notes that she has been published by Word Riot, Capboard House, and soon, by Robocup Press. We were treated to an excerpt from a YA novel in progress that, from what we experienced, will most probably be a must read for both the YA crowd and adults who appreciate a mature and believable approaches to adolescent and teenage  perspectives on family and personal development.

Siegert also shared a brief passage from a novel she is in the process of developing based on real-life events in the “A” circuit equestrian world. Honestly, when I heard “horse” I thought, “oh, not another person trying to pass whinnies and rolling eyes off as knowledge of horses.” But, as it turns out, she has worked under the tutelage of George Morris, the top of the heap in the Hunter/Jumper world for those who have not travelled that route. While I was too faint of heart to work with the fierce Morris myself, I did train with a number of his students and colleagues. Siegert is the real deal. She knows the A circuit. She knows the scandals too and I can’t wait to see what she makes of them. I hope in some aspects, only the names have been changed. The stories need to be told, but not for the sake of the “gotcha” factor but for the sake of the people now entering the business and the horses still in the field. Awareness can only lead to better practices. Siegert is not obligated to hold the torch for change though. I would not be averse to her own interpretation for her own reasons. After all, her work is fiction and at this she is no slouch.

Cassia Rainne is also a graduate of Goddard College with an MFAW. Like me, she is an adjunct professor but also an academic advisor. I was astounded to find that she also acts, directs, and produces. I can understand why she was a radio host for a number of years. Her soft but clear and direct voice holds your attention during both her readings and her casual discussion. I love that the end of her bio tells us that in what I assume is her minimal spare time she can be found “standing in tree pose focusing on what’s next.” Wow, as a yoga enthusiast myself, I completely get that. The balance and focus it takes to stay in proper tree pose is much like the focus and attention that one needs to stay on the creative path. Many distractions want to pull us off our delicately balanced stance and our own doubts or competing desires can prevent that foot from even lifting off the floor to begin with.

What can I say about her work? What I remember most pointedly is the mood she created. She had us all in a trance as her warm voice told us of a woman simply preparing eggs. But the eggs were not the point so much as what memories and musings their presence triggered. I am probably not doing her story justice, but what I can say is that I’m dying to hear it again and more of it. Her style is a mix of observation and intentionally limited explanation. We are both voyeurs and confidents as we stand in the room with the character and listen to her history while watching her every move. We are with her, yet her privacy does not seem violated by our presence. The delivery here is all in the rhythm of the words and their patterns of logic.

Now, none of this is to say that I would not have wanted to read any of these authors’ works if I had not heard them first. A bad book is a bad book as far as I’m concerned, but quality work is illuminated by empathetic reading, no matter how brief the encounter. This experience brought to this intimate gathering 3 worthwhile pens and voices.

Here are some memorable statements and sound ideas from the authors given during the Q & A session and so graciously in casual conversation afterward (as I recall and decipher from my notes):

Galef: When asked how much of the author must be expected to seep into a narrative, Galef stated simply but strongly that “the self is inescapable.” I take this to mean that a work must not necessarily at any point be autobiographical, but one must not expect to disappear entirely, nor desire to. What you learn often becomes what your characters know, don’t you think?

Rainne: When I asked her what ignites the idea for a story, she discussed not needing to plan or brainstorm so much as letting a moment of inspiration or even a simple object like an egg take her on a path. She lets the moment be “the moment.”

Siegert: “I don’t want to write about me,” she smiled and said. Siegert does not argue that our own selves and experiences may very well feed our creations. After all, her forthcoming novel about the world of A-circuit horse shows is inspired by real life. She does share with us that one of her most challenging assignments was to write from a boy’s perspective or someone she could not readily form just by reaching inside for like a kind of Eve’s rib.

For more on these wonderful writers:

Cassia Rainne: contact purpleshamrockmedia@gmail.com or visit Purple Shamrock’s Facebook page

Mia Siegert: http://www.miasiegert.com or contact siegert.mia@gmail.com

David Galef: http://www.davidgalef.com

*I had unfortunately conflated two of David’s stories when I wrote this blog. The CPA and his kleptomaniac wife can be found in “Petty Larceny” while  “More Than a Platonic Relationship” is the tale that, as the title reflects, contains the references to Plato. David was very gracious in his correction and I am pleased to be able to make good on my mistake.