Monday, November 14, 2016

The hard work of tolerance

On Friday November 11th the San Jose Mercury News reported that Frank Navarro had been removed from his history classroom for making a comparison between Trump's rhetoric and Hitler's.  

On Sunday I attended a group gathering that was called an Election Shiva, because, as has been pointed out, many of us are in grief.  The topic of Frank Navarro's removal came up.  And the group looked at one another and asked, what do we do about that?  It does not feel right?  But should schools take a political perspective?  What should we do?  Everyone looked at one another.  I wanted to say something, but at that time didn't.  It seemed that what I had to say felt complicated, or that if I opened my mouth I might say it with too much emotion so that it could arouse more emotion, and I did not want that.  But here is what I wanted to say.  It is my response to the silencing of a teacher.

We are all in difficult times right now and emotions are running high.  No matter who we voted for, there is hurt all around.  The stories of bigotry, of who is and is not a bigot, are swirling.  That our republic suffers the vestiges of slavery cannot be denied.  That some Americans are learning for the first time that the American Dream is not equally distributed is also true, though many among us have known this for generations.  Many bodies are suddenly less safe than they were last week.

Hurt and fear threaten to close the aperture for conversation or in some cases, like in my own family, have closed it already.  However, contact is important, however painful it may be.  And by contact I do not necessarily mean agreement and I am aware that even this, contact, may be something that not everybody is ready for.  Yet, at school especially, our communities must cling to first principles of democracy, one of them being, freedom of speech.  No voice may be silenced.

Tolerance in an environment in which everyone agrees does not test the principle of tolerance.  It is when there are multiple perspectives that the practice of tolerance is forged.  It is not easy work.  In this case, organizations, like schools, owe it to their communities to be clear about their values of inclusion and freedom of expression.  All bodies must feel safe.  That is, in a tolerant community it is not permissible for someone to fear physical harm because of their perspective or their identity.  Similarly, all voices have a place.  No voice may be silenced and no individual voice may be amplified to drown out other voices.

With respect to a teacher, that voice already has power associated with it.  I believe the responsibility of the school is to guarantee safe space for its students, and in the case of history, to provide the appropriate resources for history students to grapple with the known facts of the past, knowing, of course, that those facts are always delivered from a point of view.  This is part of the study of history--to learn that who gets to tell the story has a big impact on the story that is told.  

In a tolerant community I think it is normalization of silencing to remove a teacher from their post for presenting historical facts from a particular point of view.  It is urgent that we resist this kind of silencing at this time.  Instead, it is preferable in a tolerant community to invite other voices into a conversation, to empower students to grapple with varying points of view.  This is the study of history.  Removing a teacher from their post is silencing.  They are very different approaches.

Similarly, I was impressed this week by John Palfrey, Head of School at Andover who, on Wednesday delivered an excellent All School Meeting Address in response to the election and with regard to what is expected of the Andover community, knowing that diversity is a cornerstone of that school's mission.  In response to his address, a trustee offered an alternate perspective that he would have given as the community address.  And here's the thing, Palfrey, though he respectfully disagreed with the trustee's position, he distributed  the perspective to the Andover community as well.  Offering alternative perspectives, respectful listening, and maintaining contact even in the midst of fierce disagreement is difficult work.  But defending the ability to do so is urgent work for maintaining the fabric of our republic.

Follow up.  School districts have the right to restrict what is being taught in their schools.  Public school teachers' rights to freedom of speech are shaped by their role as employees of the school district.  In this case it is the Superintendent's duty to oversee the school's curriculum.  The Superintendent has the power to declare what is and is not an appropriate presentation to a high school history class post-election.  Knowing this, it is our job to implore our school leadership to make clear their commitment to teaching tolerance as part of our public school curriculum.  Here is the ACLU information that details the public speech rights of public school teachers:

ACLU information regarding teachers right to speech.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What does it mean today?

Last night I dreamt that I was caught in a train station during war time.  It was night, and I was trying to buy five tickets to get out.  A long armed robot was in the station picking people off, it caught a whiff of me and because I smelled like vanilla it chased me down into a corner.  It was going to kill me, but it did not because I offered it a vanilla cookie I had made.

Many of you have now read my most recent essay, "I'm Not Really a Waitress" over at the Roar Sessions.  Most of you have been exposed to me giving Trump Tower the finger.  And if you read the piece, you know that I was p*&$y grabbed on the subway, and until I heard that this had happened to others, anger eluded me, only to erupt when I woke up to the fact that this kind of behavior is widespread.  In the piece I grapple with my anger and its expression.  I behave rudely in public for the first time in my life, and then struggle with violent thoughts in the privacy of my own writing space.  

I ended the piece with no easy answers.  There was no wrapping it up cleanly.  It was published on November 7th.

Since writing the piece I have continued to think about why my anger laid fallow for so long, and one thought I have had was this.  Diminishing its meaning, filing the experience as an odd-one off that took nothing from me was a survival strategy.  It was a way of keeping the reality of my vulnerability as a woman on the streets of New York City at bay. 

Because the other side of my anger, I understand there to be grief and fear regarding the primal vulnerability of my body, which, in the end, is the primal vulnerability of all bodies.  To have acknowledged that in my twenties would have been difficult, near impossible really wth living in the city and needing to make my way as a young woman.  And in part was possible because while my body is in its way vulnerable, it's less vulnerable than most. 

In my essay I go on to share with readers a disturbing rage fantasy, which I included because I felt it said something important about a universal violent impulse that lives in consciousness as a primitive reaction to realized vulnerability.  When you encounter folks in grief after the election, it is grief over this primal vulnerability, especially of black bodies, brown bodies, bodies of women and others who have mostly skirted on the fringes of power over the course of history, and the accompanying fear that these bodies are now more vulnerable than ever.

Anger is a healthy response to the violation of bodies, but what I want to refine and commit to continue to refine here on my blog and in all my writing, is the process of being with anger, such that it becomes a workable force that bends the arc of history toward justice, especially in the forms of safety and inclusion for a diverse community of people.  I do not regret my anger, but also understand it to be powerful and if confused with hate to be dangerous.  I vow to harness it to become ever more useful in fulfilling the promise of our democracy and the requirements of our planetary interconnectedness.

My mother is a Jungian analyst.  I have been raised to believe that dreams come to us to aid us toward our health and growth.  They are poems, riddles that may suggest uncanny solutions to problems, not that there are easy solutions to any of the large challenges we face as a planet or a nation.  In my dream last night, a vanilla cookie kept the monster at bay.  I did not perish.  I lived to see another day.  In a sense, the vanilla cookie is the solution the dream offers the dreamer.  

I've tried lots of different interpretations on in this paragraph today.  None of them feel quite right. But what I cannot help but point out, and want others to understand, is that the white cookie keeps me safe.  My privilege keeps me safe.  Many bodies are much more at risk than they were before Tuesday night.  Those who walk safely among us have an obligation to use our privilege in whatever form we experience it to protect the more vulnerable and to protect the principles of democracy.  

Whatever it means, I plan bring my very most sincere effort to the work and I hope you will join me.

Take good care.  With love and commitment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Summer of Hamilton

Two hour Hamilton sing along on the road to Hana

There is so much I could say about the past six months, about how we gave up an idealized version of family life in favor of a doable version of family life, about how the pedestrian pressures of Palo Alto exhausted me to the point I thought I might be clinically depressed, about how it came to my attention that Graham and I often find ourselves in over our heads raising three children, or about how frequently and humbly I've needed to ask for help and then ask for help again.  That all has been true, and it is also true that things are much better now (PHEW).  The biggest impact has come from finding help and support, but I must say, the Spencers have also been lifted up by Hamilton, the musical.  2016 will definitely go down as the summer of Hamilton.

It started with an image that seemed at once typical and a bit worrisome from a parent’s perspective.  Gwendolyn, on the verge of turning twelve, was on her phone a lot.  At the beach she sat in the shade, earbuds plugged in place, those white plastic threads skimming her shoulders as they tethered her to some unknown elsewhere.  For hours.  Everyday.  In all fairness, she was not totally hypnotized, she produced many drawings while she was attached to her phone, but since she is my first child, the child who will break me into raising a teenager, I kept an overly vigilant watch.  The phone seemed a likely pitfall, and in other ways was already proving itself to be. 

I worried whenever I saw her on her phone.  Was this too much time?  Should I cut her off?  How much was normal?  Until one day in early July; it was hot and sunny.  We were in our bathing suits walking on a path toward the beach.   Gwendolyn said mom, “Listen to this.”  And then she started to play a song from Hamilton for me.  It was “Guns and Ships.”  I knew she liked the music from Hamilton, that her friend Gracie had introduced her to it, and even that she listened to it a lot. But because her phone life was such a private cocoon, I had no idea how much she was listening to the score.  

As Gwendolyn played me the song, she sang along to all of of the lyrics in “Guns and Ships.”  For those of you who haven’t heard the music from Hamilton yet, the words in “Guns and Ships,” spew like machine gun fire.  I’ve read that to perform the song, the singer must pronounce 6.3 words per second.  In general, the pace of word flow in Hamilton overall is so fast that if the show were to be performed at a typical pace for a musical it would play for over four hours, instead of the two and a half hours it normally runs.  Learning the lyrics to “Guns and Ships” was an impressive feat, evidence of passion and an inestimable amount of practice.  Hamilton.  The bulk of Gwendolyn’s phone time had been spent listening to Hamilton.

From that point on, Gwendolyn took charge of music during car rides.  We listened to “The Schuyler Sisters,” on repeat for the first few weeks.  Then “Helpless.”  We faked formality along with the cast as we learned “Farmer Refuted.”  None of us learned the lyrics to “Guns and Ships,” quite like Gwendolyn had, but we followed her lead, and after a spring during which the girls had been more at one another than ever, the sisterly tension shifted gears into friendly jousts over which Schuyler Sister would be the best to play when they all made it to Broadway.  Short answer—it’s not Peggy.


This is how I end up walking down Bryant street the other morning listening to “One Last Time.”  In this number George Washington takes a private moment with Hamilton to share the news that there has been a shift in power in his administration.  Jefferson, Hamilton’s nemesis, has resigned from the cabinet in order to run for President, and Washington will not oppose him.  The song plots the emotional journey Hamilton and Washington make together as they draft one last public address together. 

One last time.
Relax have a drink with me.
One last time. 
Let’s take a brea tonight
And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye,
To say goodbye.
You and I.

In Palo Alto the sky is blue over head, and for the first time there is a bit of fall chill in the air.  Here I am, the person in the phone cocoon, earbuds plugged in place, Hamilton also my elsewhere.  Chris Jackson’s clear brass voice sings one last time, as I walk past the familiar homes in my neighborhood—the tan stucco, the tudor, the house with the giant briard whose barking always startles me, the white home with the terra-cotta roof.  When I pass this last one, I experience an unexpected wisp of grief, the living room window of the terracottas-roofed house is now empty.  It used to give view to a table decorated with a collection of model hands.  They were a bit gothic and odd and at the same time quite beautiful.  I had only recently learned that the house belonged to a hand surgeon and had started to think fondly of the home as one that belonged to a certain kind of artist, even though I had never met the owner in person.  This summer they moved and the house has been empty.  The hands and their owner passed out of my life without fanfare.  

Which might account for the fact of my tears.  Because it seemed for no reason, but on that block, as I listened to Chris Jackson play George Washington I cried.  I couldn’t place the reason, but looking back I wonder if the experience of a small loss was hinting at the imminence of more important losses to come.  The empty window.  My little girl disappearing.  The final months of a presidency that has both meant something to me and has felt inextricably linked to the arrival of my first child.


When I got home I looked up that final address that Washington and Hamilton wrote together.

It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness;  that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it, accustoming yourself to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

When Washington points out the “immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness,” I return to July 2004.  Gwendolyn is four weeks old.  The incision across my belly is a hard ridge.  I have been visited by the lactation specialist three times for a cracked nipple that won’t heal.  For the first time in my life, the television is on all day.  Everyday.  I’m embarrassed to admit, this is why I end up watching the Democratic National Convention for the first time in my life.  I am moved by the young senator from Illinois.  

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  That this is the true genius of American, a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted—or at least, most of the time.

When he finishes his speech, I think, I’d like to see this man run for President.  This might be the only substantive thought I hold in my head all summer.  That summer that I never left the house and watched television all day.


And so here we are together.  The single thought shared by so many, I’d like to see this man run for President, is a notion that has run its course.  My daughter is twelve, and it is time for this country to re-invent itself again.  Just like in 1796.  Just like in 2004 and 2008 and 2012.  I wonder how we will do it this time.  Gwendolyn is twelve, straddling her own epochs, the music from Hamilton humming in her blood.  What history is she about to witness?  

I'm not sure how to end this post, except to say, Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man was shot on September 16th walking to his stalled vehicle in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  If you haven't watched the videos, you must.

The notion of “elsewhere” was adapted from the essay, “On or About,” from the book Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

3 Fun Things

I thought you could use some plain old good news for a change.  So here are three small but, great things.

First,  I saw a 7 week old Jack Russell puppy this morning.  The picture doesn't really capture the total cuteness of this tiny mammal.  At about two hands long, and one hand high this guy's body is portable joy.  Do you think it is cheating on my 13 year old German Shepherd to have enjoyed this little encounter so much?  I'm not bringing home a puppy, so I think Chicca, my sweet old girl, will forgive me this little flirtation.

Second, this week, with the publication of my Roll Call post, my blog crossed 100,000 pageviews!  YAY!  Thank you so much for your time and attention.  For a young writer, having readers never stops being astonishing, I'm not kidding.  My heart hops into my throat and I squint back tears, when I think about it.   I have no idea what this number means in the world past my doorstep, whether it would be considered a lot or a little.  But I don't care.  It means a boatload to me, and I am doing a little teary, jig here at my lap top.  THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  THANK YOU!

And finally, I just wanted to circle back on my last post.  I said something in there that wasn't exactly accurate.  I said I didn't care who you will vote for.  The truth is I do, I deeply do, but what I don't care to do is argue about who you will vote for or to give any more attention than necessary to Hillary's opponent.  I have started to feel about the non-Hillary candidate the same way that the characters in Harry Potter feel about Voldemort.  To say the name is to risk conjuring the presence.  The non-Hilary candidate is getting plenty of attention in other places, and while I agree it is important for the news and the truth to keep coming, in this place, my blog of 100,000 pageviews, where I get to control the universe, I want to offer attention toward practical steps we can take towards sanity.

To that end, and this is my third good thing. I am celebrating that good citizens can take comfort in the democratic work ahead.  In a non-partisan way, it does the heart and mind good to act on behalf of the things that matter most to us.  Today I went to, clicked on ACT, then scrolled to California. I signed up to volunteer and then found the link to START CALLING (right here from my lap top, just an hour ago!).  After setting aside a short case of the jitters (cold calls can be so tough) I made my first three phone calls on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and on call number three I reached a woman in LA named Tracey.  She is a strong supporter, and so I got her signed up to volunteer for the campaign.  She will be traveling to Nevada and I hope to do the same.  WOOT!

Here is the direct link to the online phone bank (  Once I got past my nerves, calling was so easy and only took a couple of minutes.

I hope you all have a great Thursday!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Roll Call

Showing up for roll call, strong in generations

This week Jena Schwartz, a wonderful writing friend and teacher published a post she entitled Roll Call.

"This morning in one the writing groups I facilitate, I essentially asked for a show of hands — a virtual roll call. Are you here? I asked. One by one, people came and said yes and yo. They wrote half-mast and no but I want to be. There was no wrong answer. Are you here? Are you here? Am I here?
We are here, and we are not leaving."
She was writing about her morning writing group, but she was also writing about the politics of our times, in particular, some of the more disturbing aspects of the Republican platform.  For those of you who know me, it will be no surprise that there are many, many aspects of the current Republican platform with which I disagree.  The bigger surprise may be that I have written so little in the past few months.
The truth of my quiet is that I have been in a state of waiting.  Of I don't know what I'm meant to do here.  Last summer I picked up Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I read it while on a long stretch at the beach with my family.  Halfway through the book, I found myself walloped with despair.  I told Graham I needed sometime alone.  I rented a small hotel room, finished the book, and spent the rest of the day in a state that I can best describe as mourning.  I cried for how much more work there is to be done, and for my absolute sense of not knowing what, personally, I could do.  
Writing was always a possibility, but there was a part of me that did not want to add to the mayhem.  With the political and racial climate plummeting, it can feel like the air itself is lace with vitriol. I also have bouts of anger, but have not wanted to add to the heat of the moment.  And yet, it feels important, also to speak up, respond to my friend Jena's roll call, to say I'm here, count me in.  
In particular, I want to share with you the issues that matter to me as a way of presenting myself without anger or heat to say, count on me for these issues.  These are not the only issues I care about, but I feel each of them deeply, and struggle with feeling paralyzed in the face of their scope.  I don't know what it means to ask you to count on me for these, or what I will be able to do to back my beliefs up.  This not knowing has kept me quiet for a long time.  Putting what I believe into words in public feels so meager, and honestly, not knowing what action to take makes me feel ashamed--and that more than meagerness has probably been the thing that has kept me so silent.  What is more annoying than a person with strong convictions and not enough action?  But you know what, forget that--these things take time, they take all of us, and it will take all of us putting our fears and shame aside to plunge forward.  I believe saying what we care about matters, in ways that maybe we don't understand or can't understand in the moment of their saying.  
So here it goes...yo' Jena, I'm here for roll call.
I believe in equity, inclusion, and in a democracy that is grounded in robust participation.  I am troubled by Citizens United, the power that super PACs have in our electoral process, and the current legislation around campaign finance.
I believe that income inequality is polarizing American culture and society, and that the disappearance of the middle class instills fear and anxiety in all of our citizens.
I believe that as a country, we have yet to account for the exodus of women from the role of care taking.  We have undervalued the role that care taking plays in a compassionate society and our lack of attention keeps structures in place that reinforce the cycle of poverty and the the shape of American work life.  The dominant culture of work and social life encourages citizens to cover their differences in order to participate in our economy and other systems. 
I believe that our country has profited off the bodies of black men and women, since our founding days, and that our current privatized prison system is a re-incarnation of slavery.  To read more about this topic read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  I don't think that we will come close to addressing racism in our midst until we address this and other structured injustices.
I believe that media has de-sensitized us to sensationalism, drama, and aggression--it makes it difficult to distinguish between news and entertainment.  Though we can never go back to pre-Watergate days, in which the media and the government shared a gentlemen's reporting agreement with regard to the news, we need more journalism that is designed as a public service to preserve our democracy, not drive profit.
I believe that compassionate people have a role to play in reducing anger and increasing sanity.  We need heroes and scripts and models for creating unity in an insane climate.  We could do with far fewer guns in our public life, and deeper structural change in the geography that drives racism and injustice and the systemized concentration of wealth.  We need to acknowledge that our thoughts and reactions are shaped by the geography and structures in which we live.  None of us will be able to think or act freely for as long as groups of individuals are systemically disadvantaged.  
These are not the only issues that trouble me, but they are the ones I feel intensely right now.  This week I will take active measures to support Hilary Clinton.  I don't care whether she is your candidate or not, but I do care about having skin in the game--yours, mine, everyone's.  Unless we are all in it together, we risk losing what generations of Americans have made possible (um, sure, I've probably been listening to too much Hamilton, but honestly, it's an uplifting soundtrack for summer of 2016, which is serving up so much sadness, violence and disappointment).
If you're inclined, I would love to read your roll call.  What do you care about?  Where do you want to be counted, even if you don't know how to go about showing up?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Interview with Jan Ellison

Dear friends, 
It gives me inexplicable happiness to share an email interview I conducted with Jan Ellison, author of the novel, A Small Indiscretion.  Just released in paperback, A Small Indiscretion is a National Bestseller and has been well received by a broad spectrum of reviewers, including Kirkus Reviews, New York Journal of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle and many others.  

In Ellison's novel, Annie Black, a wife and mother of three, recounts a series of love affairs from her twenties that are having unexpected and tragic consequences in her family's current day life.  The book swells with innumerable pleasures including delicious prose, taut suspense, and the opportunity to spend time in the hearts of original characters.  But what puts this novel on my short list of favorites, is Ellison's capacity for empathy.  Through her flawed character of Annie Black, Ellison explores our universal longing to be forgiven.  So that when Annie says, "I wanted what everyone wants--to be known.  To know oneself, and to tell the whole story of that self, and to be loved anyway," it feels as if Ellison is naming the yearning for all of us.

Jan and I met recently at our mutual friend Kristin's 50th Birthday party.  I knew Jan's book and I knew of her, but we had never met, and I was too self conscious to ask for an introduction.  So it felt like a moment of grace when I realized that the first stranger I introduced myself to at Kristin's party, was Jan, herself. This interview is the continuation of the conversation we started that evening.  (Kristin, if you are reading, thank you for including us and setting the stage for a conversation that will go down as one of my favorite I've had the chance to have about writing.)

In person, in this interview, and in her writing, Jan models a way of making art that inspires me.  While I'm not sure she would say that writing is her spiritual practice, the things she says about writing remind me of qualities that I have come to associate with spiritual practice--the importance of habit, the way that the act of engaging (rather than the product of the engagement) is what matters (I'm reminded of the line from Wendell Berry, "everyday do something that won't compute") and that when "her writing mind runs the show" she is closer to the person she is "meant to be in the world."  

Discussing writing with Jan has uplifted me as a writer and as a human being. I hope you'll feel the same.  If you enjoy this interview, please consider sharing it.  Jan offers hard won writer's wisdom, and her book is so worthy of people’s time.


What led you to write A Small Indiscretion?  Is it true that you kept a journal of a year abroad when you were 19?  What role did the notes play?

When I was 19, I took a year off college and spent 3 months in Paris, then moved to London and found a job in an office and a room in a boarding house. I filled notebooks with bits of poems and stories, and with observations about my new surroundings. The writing in those notebooks is not very good at all, but the act of putting words on the page was important. It became a habit, and the habit in turn altered the way I walked through my days. I made word sketches of people I saw on the street. I wrote down bits of dialog. I leapt out of my own skin and began to experience the world as a source of stories and inspiration. I became not only a participant in my own life, but an observer of others’ lives.

The genesis of A Small Indiscretion came from a particular memory from the day I turned 20. It was just a few weeks after I’d arrived in London. I called my mother from a red phone booth across the street from the youth hostel where I was staying. This was before cell phones and the Internet, and it struck me after I’d hung up that my mother had no way to reach me, and neither did anybody else. I was alone in the world for the first time. This feeling was new, and I treasured it. Two decades later, it was that particular feeling I was trying to capture—the freedom to experience the world in an entirely private way. 

Motherhood and family life are so present in the novel, and you're the mother of four children.  What's the relationship like between motherhood and writing in your life?  How does motherhood influence your writing?  

I write about motherhood because it has been the most profound experience of my life, and it has shaped my world view. But also because I’ve struggled with its demands. I’ve had difficulties balancing raising a family with the need not only for time to write, but for time to experience the world independently, as I did when I was young. To digest its offerings fully and without interruption, which every writer needs. 

I started to write just a few months after I became a stay-at-home mom, so the two pursuits have always gone hand in hand. Which is to say I’ve never really been a writer and not also been a mother, and vice versa. In the beginning, I couldn't work it out: Was I meant to feel guilty when I was writing, or when I was not writing? When I was ignoring my children or when I was turning away from what might turn out to be my only real talent? Was I first and foremost a mother, or first and foremost a writer?

Like other mothers I know who write, I seemed to be first and foremost a writer in my mental wanderings, but in the actual physical motion of the day, in the bulk of the hours, I was a mother. And so the writing, for the first decade or so, was a guilty retreat, the thing I slunk off to as if to a lover. 

After I started to publish stories, and especially since my novel came out a year ago, that dynamic has shifted. If I was desperate in the early years to escape the demands of family life into writing, I find that sometimes, now, I want to escape the demands of being an author to plop down on the couch and watch a movie with my kids.

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?  When did that wanting shift into a deeper commitment to a writer's life?  What changed?

I had dabbled in writing during that year in Europe, and again after college, during a two-year stint abroad. But at 22, when I came back to the States, the last thing I wanted to do was try to be a writer. What I wanted to do was make some money.

So I found a job with a financial software startup, and I didn’t write creatively for 7 years. Then when I was 33 and my second child was born, I quit the job, and that very same day, signed up for a writing class. I can’t say that I ever decided I wanted to become a writer, but on the first day of that first class, I gave in to the compulsion to write, and I’ve been doing it more-or-less steadily ever since.

What are you reading right now?  What few books or collections have made the biggest impact on you as a writer?

Lately, I’ve been drawn toward intimate narratives that offer a deep exploration of domestic subjects. A few novels in that vein: Robin Black’s Life Drawing, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

In terms of my development as a writer, Alice Munro is probably the single writer whose work has most influenced me. I’ve read most of what she’s written, certainly all of her earlier work, much of it more than once. There is a discipline in her writing, a precision in the way she describes how people think and feel. She doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t look away. She doesn’t apologize or moralize. She allows her characters the most outrageous longings and impulses, yet it all feels very much like real life. She’s a master of that blend of authenticity and surprise that I want to strive for in my own work. 

Cheryl Strayed says success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors.  Your writing has been successful by any measure.  Over the years of becoming a writer, how have you defined success for yourself?  And how has that changed as you've earned recognition for your work, for example with the O. Henry Prize and then the successful publication of A Small Indiscretion?

At every step of the way, I set goals for myself, ways to measure my success, but they were achievable goals—they were under my control. 
Finish a first draft of one short story. 
Apply to an MFA program. 
Polish one story to submit to the student magazine. 
Send work out to literary journals.
Collect 100 rejection letters. 
Finish your novel. 

What I see, now, is that setting these sorts of goals forced me to engage with my work again and again. To revise and reshape and cut and reimagine. To toss out and begin again, then submit again. It took me 5 years to write and publish my first short story, The Company of Men, which went on to win an O. Henry Prize. That was a hugely lucky break, and it jump-started my writing career. But I view the success as the relentless revising and submitting, not winning the prize. 

It took me 8 years to write A Small Indiscretion, and I’m proud of myself for having fought through the doubt and despair to finish it. I’m happy about how quickly it was sold, and how well it’s done. But what happens after you’ve published a book is not a measure of its success; writing it is. Because no matter how many accolades a book receives, no matter how many copies it sells, there is always a book that has done better. There is always a list it missed, or a prize it didn’t win, or a reader who didn’t like it. It’s easy to become discouraged, to begin to measure your work, and yourself, in only these terms. It’s sometimes tempting to turn away from the writing entirely because of the difficult business of having that writing out in the world. But it’s the act of writing, of making art, that matters, not what others think of it, not even what we think of it, ourselves.

As Martha Graham puts it:  
 “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching . . .”

What, if anything, has writing taught you, that carries over into other aspects of your life?  Are there any habits or routines you keep as a writer that support you in your life in general?  In what ways does writing impact your well-being?

I love this question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, thinking about how important writing is to my well-being.

Last Friday, I took my daughters to a concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland. We didn’t have time to grab dinner beforehand, so we decided we’d eat at the Theater, but we got there to find one guy making grilled cheese sandwiches, one woman taking orders, and a line fifty people long.

We got in line, and my blood began to boil. I was furious at the theater for not lining up more food options. I was furious with the grilled cheese guy for not hiring extra help. I was furious with myself for wasting time being furious. 

Then I took a deep breath, and remembered I was a writer. I began to consider the Grilled Cheese Guy as a source of material instead of frustration, and gradually, my fury turned to curiosity. What was the story? How had this barrel-chested, big-armed man ended up here, slapping cheese on sourdough bread while his assistant fumbled with the credit card machine? What could be gleaned from his posture, his facial expressions, his tattoos, about the internal workings of his mind and heart? What did it mean for him when he had to announce to the hungry crowd that he’d run out of bread? 

To answer the question: When I let my writing mind run the show, I’m more calm, more curious, more alive, more receptive to humor and joy and tragedy and beauty. I’m closer to the person I was meant to be in the world.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Birthday thank you

Forty-Four.  It's not a big deal Birthday.  And yet a bunch of people I love made a big deal of it.  Friends joined me an outdoor adventure to Windy Hill.  Flowers came to my door.  My family gathered around my dining room table--a simple thing--but the choreography that my husband had to perform to make it happen was formidable.  There were cupcakes with candles (I blew them all out and did not pass on making my wish).  A scarf that matches three tops I already have.  Chocolates from Connecticut (not only yummy, but adored and Instagramed by Dani Shapiro, a favorite author who happens to live near my father).  A cookbook whose cover is so flowered and cheerful, I may just use it as table art.  A book of poetry called Salt.

And then there were all of those Facebook Happy Birthdays.  I admit, up until this year's Birthday, I have been a bit of a Facebook Birthday snob.  How much could a HBD message from someone you haven't seen in years really mean?  More than I have allowed myself to imagine, I think.  First, it was a barrage of delight to hear from so many people.  Something like the perfect blow on the bubble wand--all those tiny, reflective, sentiments fluttering in my direction, so many of them!  What a happy surprise.  

It was the number of them that reminded me of my friend Brett, and his bike accident, and how many people offered help on Facebook.  The Happy Birthday wishes are a small thing, but the help that can emerge, that does emerge in times of trouble, is a new kind of safety net that none of us had before our networks came alive online.  I am grateful to have heard from so many people, and grateful to be connected to such a thoughtful, accomplished, compassionate group.

Here's a poem I read for the first time yesterday.  Thank you for everything.

Questions About Angels
by Billy Collins

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and 
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads?  Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear about 
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is just one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Don't Get Chased By Turkeys

This week I took a walk with my friend Rachel at a place everyone in Palo Alto calls The Dish.  A paved path cuts through the foothills.  There are views that unfurl toward the San Francisco Bay, and on a clear day, reach as far north as Marin county.  We often have nature encounters.  We see squirrels, bunnies, deer, sometimes coyotes, and a lot of birds.  Sparrows flutter by the edge of the path, herons stand on one foot in the golden grass, sea gulls slice across the sky, and hawks perch in oak trees.

In the middle of our walk we noticed something unusual.  What we saw first was a group of women in bright tops and sunglasses approaching us.  They walked quickly and darted their heads from side to side.  Sometimes they craned their necks behind them.  It was hard to tell if they were doing a new exercise (should we be trying it?!) or if they were in some kind of distress.  It was the jagged way their heads moved that made me think this wasn't just exercise.  

When they came closer we saw that three wild turkeys were chasing them.  The turkeys were puffed up, their feathers splayed tall and proud like on a Thanksgiving card.  Their poking beaks getting nearer and nearer to the women's legs.   

How threatening is a turkey?  None of us actually knew.  Their beaks looked pointy, alarmingly they moved pretty fast.  And they were big.  They were about up to our chests, and like a set of three army tanks they barreled toward us.  

Now we were the ones slightly anxious and uncomfortable, was this funny or dangerous?  It was hard to say.  Rachel retied her coat around her waste as we zeroed in on what to do.  Our first instinct was to join the other women, to turn around put as much distance between us and the turkeys.  But there seemed something off to me about that.  Either the turkeys were a danger and we really should run, not speed walk, or they were dimwitted, but very afraid birds.  So I said to Rachel,  "These are turkeys.  They don't want to chase us.  I mean don't we call people turkeys when they are generally acting daft and ridiculous?  I think we're probably more dangerous to them then they are to us."  

And with that, I just stopped walking.  I stood stock still in the path as the ladies in their bright tops blazed by.  Rachel stood there with me, now stuck, somewhat unwittingly in my decision.  I was honestly a little scared.  I did not know if this tactic would work and if it didn't I did not have a back up plan.  But it felt like the right thing to do.  I forced myself to get very still.  I took a few deep breaths.  I dropped my gaze about six feet in front of me, where I let my eyes soften.  Rachel did the same.

It was like a cloud of calm mushroomed out of us and when it hit the turkeys, they slowed down.  In the length of time it took for me to take three breaths they slowed down, and from where we were standing it looked like they almost melted.  They shrunk to half their size, pulling all their big feathers back into their bodies.  They were no longer looking like iconic Thanksgiving card turkeys, but small brown barnyard animals.  

The thing I want to say about this is that I notice I often have a way of making the turkeys in my life chase me down.  I have a way of making the things that trigger me bigger.  I am often dealing with the problem itself, and the extra energy I have that is inflaming the problem--puffing it up like those turkeys on the path.

We all know what we are supposed to do in that moment.  Take a deep breath, calm down.  But the thing is, we don't believe it will actually work.  We don't have faith that calming down will do anything but give us the relief of a deep breath.  The fact is, it does much more.  The thing that happened with the turkeys, it seemed almost physical, as if there were tiny strings between us and them.  And that by changing the vibration of the string, things between us changed significantly.  Animals show us this all the time.  Our thoughts are just to big to let us believe it, I think.

There you have it, unedited, typos and all.

I would love to know what you do, not just to calm down, but to convince yourself that calming down is worth doing.  What is the thought or impulse or feeling that tells you it is time to get back to center?

Sending love,

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The thing I need you to know

Half way through I realized this heart drawing was not going to come out "right."  But the thing I heard inside was see it through and see what happens.  I keep it as a reminder that imperfect work is better than no work at all.  

Friends of my blog,

I miss you.  I have been posting less often, as my writing has been taking me into yet unformed places.  I have been visiting the edges of my writing skills.  I have been focusing on some longer pieces and hunkering into creating the kind of freedom that is needed to produce work that is truly new--that is written for the adventure of writing it.  And yet, part of the big adventure for me has been the opportunity to be in touch with you, the people who I know, love, enjoy and who, more than anyone else, have encouraged me to keep at writing.  You are such an important part of it for me.  Write for yourself, first, the teachers say.  And I get that.  In part it means do it for the sake of doing it.  Enjoy the process of writing, figure out what writing offers you minus any outer recognition.  

But what I realized just this morning, is that my writing, from its earliest inception, was in the form of letters to friends.  I was never very good at journaling, like many writers are, but what I did with absolute childhood fervor was write to friends.  Long letters that traveled up and down the east coast, making their final stop in places like Skaneatelas, Greensboro, Weston, Allendale, New Canaan, Guilford and more.  

What kind of letters were these?  Just common letters in their way, contemplations about a new crush, tender bits of gossip, wonderings about what grown up life would be like.  But as a whole, when I think of all of you to whom I wrote as a girl and a young woman, and when I think of those of you who follow the blog, I know in my heart these were love letters.  They were meditations on the people I was writing to, my hopes for them and my hopes for myself, braided together in words.  They were a way of keeping in touch, and a request for companionship around the questions that life, at every stage has posed to us.

So with that, I've realized that my writing will never exist in a vacuum, without you.  And given that I have other pieces in the works that require a different approach from blogging, I hereby announce that I will be posting shorter bits, questions, unformed thoughts and sentences that sometimes will have dangling participles or other such grammatical insults.  Thank you in advance for being willing to shift sets, to leave the smooth pavement of crafted prose, and head out onto the road less traveled--dusty and full of rocks, where thoughts are blurted, things don't necessarily match, and where you may watch me change my mind 10,000 times as I wonder about things I don't yet understand.

I would love to hear from you too.  I'd love to read your writing, hear about what you are loving (or despising) lately, and generally what you are up to.  Don't be shy.  Leave comments.  You are all good people here and might very well meet some new people you'll enjoy or catch up with friends you love.

With love and appreciation

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Letter to My Buddy Fran

Happy New Year Everyone!  I have not posted in awhile, but am so happy to be back at my desk after a busy fall and holiday season.  I'm kicking off my blogging year with a public letter to my friend named Fran, who I met at Cheryl Strayed's writing workshop last Spring.  Fran is a beautiful writer (check out her blog if you want to get lost in poetry and great personal narrative) and I'm writing to her today because she asked me for one single link, but it was on a topic that I really like.  In the beginning of the year I've offered myself a bit of freedom and open space, today I really let myself use it.  I offer you my wandering note to Fran in the hopes that others find The Harvard Study on Adult Development aka The Grant Study interesting and encouraging.

Dear Fran,
Thanks for asking for the link to the TEDx talk about The Grant Study, which is now referred to as The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  It has given me an excuse to collect my thoughts on this study, which has been a thread of interest for me for a long time.

The Harvard Scholars who run the The Harvard Study of Adult Development, say it may be the longest run longitudinal study of adult development that currently exists (so Harvard of them!).  It includes 724 men, 268 were “Harvard men” from the original Grant Study and 456 boys from inner city Boston who were part of a lesser known study called the Glueck Study.  I also read in one of the articles below that, at some point, women from Stanford’s Terman Study had also been folded into the group, though I am not sure what impact this has had.  But by and large the Harvard Study of Adult Development, often more casually referred to as The Grant Study, has considered the long term evolution of men’s lives.  

I don’t remember when I first learned about The Grant Study, but it feels to me like I learned about it when I was at Harvard or at least soon after I graduated, because for me there has always been, a sense of connection, as if these men were somehow my own predecessors, which in a way, they were.  I have a  fondness and affection for the study and the stories it contains, as if it gifted me a tribe of elders that I would never have known otherwise.  

That said, the learning so far has excluded stories from women and individuals of color.  So like with my actual grandfathers, I have to assume that my views may be different from theirs, and that the shape of what can be learned from studying these stories is less authoritative than any of us would like it to be.  And yet, as writers and human beings, as fellow believers in the art of narrative, I think we can allow ourselves the pleasure of absorbing wisdom and encouragement from the stories anyhow.

The particular link you were asking after is a TED talk given by Robert Waldinger who is the Fourth Director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  He is a Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, The Director of Psychodynamic Therapy at Mass General, and oh by the way, Fran, a Zen priest, which in some odd way seems like it just might be the glue that makes all those other roles fit together.  The TED talk is a short one, just under 13 minutes.  Worth a listen.  

The synopsis:  “Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”

In 2009 Joshua Wolf Shenk (author of Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity) wrote a cover story for The Atlantic about The Grant Study.  He dove deep into its history, chronicling its leadership and the evolution of its funding, revealing that at one point Phillip Morris offered some funds, and not surprisingly a question was added into the questionnaire for non-smokers about why they had never smoked.  It’s hard to say what speaks to me more in this article, the learning from The Grant Study, or Shenk’s analysis of the evolution of The Grant Study and its leadership. 

It’s difficult to boil this one down for you into a one line synopsis, but I found this bit about the study to stay with me, “Regular exercise predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.  And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health:  of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.”   If you have time, this article is worth it, if for no other reason to be swept away into Shenk’s mind, where you run across beautiful sentences like this one, “Perhaps in this, I though, likes the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.  In his effort to manifest this spirit, George Vaillant is, if not a model, then certainly a practiced guide.”

When George Vaillant released Triumphs of Experience, his latest book on The Harvard Study of Adult Development, The Atlantic covered The Grant Study again with Scott Stossel reporting.  The 2013 article is a short piece that serves up a selection of informational gems that make for excellent internet reading, including this tidbit, “Aging liberals have more sex.  Political ideology has no bearing on life satisfaction—but the most conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average of 68, while the most liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s.”  So Fran, knowing that you and I lean similarly politically, I think the future looks promising for us :-)  Similarly to the 2009 article, the writing is inspired and led me to learn more about the writer, Scott Stossel, whose 2014 book, My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, seems worth tracking down.

The Daily Beast and The Art of Manliness have both run articles on The Grant Study, which I guess makes sense because those websites seem pretty interested in man stuff.  And while my Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert loving self, does not often frequent those corners of the internet, I do enjoy flippant man writing too.  I don’t typically recommend The Daily Beast for wisdom, but you have to admit, this nugget could help you out on a bad day: “Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens.  What is true in one stage of a man’s life is not true in another.  Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages.  There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50 [if you are a man]) and a time to ignore it.  Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing in early life, but very important at the end of it.” 

And finally, if my summaries have not burned you out on the topic, you could go right to the source and read Vaillant’s most recent book, The Triumphs of Experience.  I own one of his previous books, Spiritual Evolution:  How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope and Love, which I think I will re-read, but that will be for another day.

Fran, thanks for giving me a reason to put these articles in one place.  It was a satisfying way to spend a morning, made more so by indulging myself in the thought that I was writing to you.  As I wrap this up, I am reminded of our time together at the Cheryl Strayed workshop on Maui, and of the one-on-one time we had reading each other’s writing.  I picked you out of the crowd that morning, because I had written something darker and riskier than I had ever written before.  And it was not fiction.  I picked you because you struck me as a person who could hold that, hear that, and be with me in that.  

I mention it here, because something about that interaction reminds me of where this whole letter began, with the Waldinger talk.  One thing he says in that talk is this, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”  And I would say, in a very short time and in a very limited set of interactions, you and I were able to enter into that kind of closeness and quality.  I want to mention it, because “warm and protective relationships,” feels a little g-rated, and our lives, for better or for worse will always be messier than that.  Warm and protective and high quality might also boil down to something like being true with one another, even when the stories we have to tell aren’t the prettiest.  So thank you for offering me the opportunity to be true with you that day.  It lives in my heart as a most important moment.

Sending love,