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.

Love,
Cristina



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 
forwards?
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,
Cristina


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
Cristina

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,

Cristina

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Step into the cathedral of your life




Thanks Sheila Hamilton for hosting me on KINK FM!  So fun to get to talk about my book and about the role of community in our spiritual lives.  Here's an excerpt from the conclusion that listeners might enjoy.  Thanks again for having me Sheila.  Can't wait til you're in Palo Alto on December 4th!

For the first time in human history, marriage is truly a choice, not a social expectation, not an economic exchange, a choice. 

The past decade has seen the lowest marriage rates in the history of the United States. By and large, fewer couples are getting married and they are joining together later in life. According to the US census the number of un-married, cohabiting households in the US has increased more than ten times since 1960. Advancements in women’s participation in the workforce and the emergence of same-sex lifetime partnerships, underscore the fact that marriage, for the first time ever, is not a required social or financial arrangement between unequal partners, but instead an optional fork in the road of life that can be chosen by a pair of equal peers.

For couples like you, who choose marriage, the decision to marry, however, often feels less rational than the notion of choice implies. There is a sense that this pairing is inevitable, or that something irrefutable is drawing the couple along. One or both of the partners might have the experience of hearing the small still voice that whispers over and over again, “this is so right, this is the person, this is the time, this is it.” There can be the feeling that something bigger is afoot than what you two, as individuals, have planned for yourselves.

All these senses, these emotional sparks, are signs that individuals have entered the realm of their own spirituality, their own sense of meaning. A choice made in this context is not so much a choice as a calling, an enactment of deeply held sacred values. Considered alongside the changing external social dynamics, it is fair to say that in the course of just a few generations marriage has shifted from being a social requirement to a spiritual calling. 

Meanwhile, as the choice to marry becomes more spiritual in nature, the fastest growing religion in the US is, simply put, not having one. We are coming of age in families that have lost touch or are losing touch with the rituals and rhythms that traditional religions held together for us. The reasons for leaving traditional religion are legitimate, but we are losing more than the restraint that accompanied outdated systems. The thing we are losing is hard to put a finger on, but we can feel it. We drift from day today, always on, always connected, and yet having the sense of dislocation or of missing out on meaning. We know in our core there is something inexpressibly sacred about our lives, but we often find ourselves separate from the wisdom that tells us how to make regular contact with it.

However, contact with the sacred, because it is a part of our human nature, is inevitable. Thomas Moore says, “Our culture is in need of theological reflection that does not advocate a particular tradition, but tends to the soul’s need for spiritual direction.” And without effort at all, we find ourselves in the way of spiritual direction from time to time.

We feel into it at the edge of the sea, at the top of a mountain, in the loamy, pine-scented grove of thousand-year-old redwood trees. We touch it when we count the ten little fingers and ten little toes of a newborn baby. We smell it on the edge of the morning, when the dew is still fresh and the air is cold and wet. And, in a good wedding ceremony, we hear it in the hush of the invocation, in the cadence of the vows, and in the celebration of the final announcement of the couple.

Your wedding ceremony, if you have grown up without a religious tradition in your family, may very well be the first time you experience the sacred in a social context. And I hope it will not be the last. There is currently a proliferation of science and literature that will support you in seeking the sacred in your own individual life by establishing some kind of spiritual practice. Perhaps you will try yoga, or meditation, or journal writing because of something you’ve read or seen in the news. However, there is very little that is currently being written about the importance of community in our spiritual and psychological fulfillment. 

I hope the direct experience of your ceremony will be proof enough for you that community and a set of shared common values are essential elements in a well-lived life. Each of life’s milestones represents an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate our common journey. They are each, in their own way, an invitation to step into the cathedral of your life, to appreciate the sacred as it appears in a particular moment, to celebrate, to weave a life of deep meaning, and to align your community around shared values. My hope is that your wedding will light you up in such a way that you resolve to mark the arrival of new life, the seasonal changes, and the inevitable losses you will face in the context of community. I encourage you to act boldly in designing or requesting the rites of passage you, yourself need. 

This is not to say that you should go out of your way to create fake routines or exotic pageants that arise out of nowhere. Many times a simple toast or an intimate gathering to say out loud what a transition means to you is all that is required. More important than the pageantry is the vulnerability you are willing to share with your community. And sometimes, pageantry is exactly what’s called for at a particular moment. Either way when life touches you deeply and you allow others to be with you in that moment, magic happens. You create a feeling of belonging for yourself and for others that empowers you to step into your life with more grace and authenticity. You open yourself up to the possibility that your life is full of light and meaning.

In my view, our collective survival on the planet depends on compassion and the shared belief that all lives here on earth are worthy of respect. How better to grow our understanding of the spirit in all life, than to begin to recognize it in our own? When we take time to appreciate our lives, to allow every cell to wake up to the bittersweet beauty of our short time here, we sense a transcendent quality to our experience that is both tender and unbreakable.  There is a durable softness to the human experience that binds us together. Ceremonies are important in our lives because they are a kind of frame that help us experience and claim this aspect of what it means to be human.

My hope for you is that your wedding ceremony transports you into your new life as a couple with joy and ease, and that it instills in you the great spirit of celebration that lives in all of us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Praise of Karaoke

Hi all, I have been missing you and missing posting lately.  And today I just have one thing on my mind, Karaoke.

If you haven't done Karaoke, and you are one of the people who sit on your urge to join in, but over and over just don't, please do it.  Just find a way to get yourself to do it.

For all my life I sat on the Karaoke sidelines, watching others have the fun.  Yearning to try, but red in the face with that shy shame feeling that haunts those of us who look at other people's singing and dancing with a strange combination of longing and embarrassment, I sat and sat.  And about three years ago, I decided that I would stand up. That someday I would do Karaoke.

Time passed.  I did not do it.  And I did not do it.  And then finally this summer I did.  I had to fly out of state and sing with safe people, but I finally did it.

Between channeling my inner Pat Benatar in We Belong Together, or convincing Graham to join me in a dramatic Don't You Want Me Human League duet (remember that one?!) I learned that I need more of whatever it is that happens in Karaoke in my life. 

It's hard to pin down exactly, but it has to do with music and the way music hits me in my body.  Whether I'm dancing or singing, songs land in my chest and make their way through me, somehow they bypass a part of my brain that desperately needs to be taken off line.  When a song really takes me, it can feel like I'm all body and soul, my thinking brain gets sidelined.  And I so need that.

I was reminded of Karaoke this weekend, when my friend Laurel and I went to see Elizabeth Gilbert talk about her new book Big Magic.  She was speaking in an auditorium that held a few hundred people.  At the end of the reading, she told an interesting story.

"At one of my last readings, a woman asked me, 'When you are not writing, what do you do for yourself?  You write so much you must do something else for yourself' and I thought about it for a minute and realized that the other thing I did for myself was Karaoke."

I was floored.

"It started out that a few of us got together on a Wednesday night to do Karaoke.  We loved it so much we went again.  And now it's a thing.  On Wednesday night I do Karaoke now.  I just do."

After this story, she explained that because she was on such an ambitious book tour, she was not signing books, but instead, asked us if we would be up for singing with her.  

"If you don't go to church, chances are that you are not singing.  And that is a sad thing.  We must be the first humans in all of humanity to go long stretches without singing."

The audience was clearly game.  She had us look up Take Me Home Country Road by John Denver on our phones and then we were off, singing all together.  It was that simple.  

As I sang the song I'd learned on a hundred road trips in the back seat of my mother's car, there were tears in my eyes, the kinds that are the river of your life calling you, asking you to do your very best to go all in.  And you are shy and embarrassed and maybe terrible singer, but you do it in any way.  You allow yourself to disappear into the crowd, to let loose and let the song be in charge.  And the music rises, past your ears above your head, filling the room up to the very rafters.  Its hum is thick and deep and it lifts you along, and you are not alone, for one singing minute you are a part of it.  No longer watching or listening or trying to decide, you are a part of the flow, a note in the song, a tiny speck carried along in the current.

Singing does this for me.  I want more of it in my life and want it for you too.  Karaoke, of all unholy things, strangely can help.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating my 15th Anniversary with the Release of My First Book



Please welcome to the world, my first book, Writing Your Wedding Ceremony.  It is available on Amazon today!

My book is a short, handy guide designed for couples who have opted to ask a family member or friend officiate at their wedding.  In addition, a number of readers have told me it's a very useful resource if you happen to be that friend or family member who has been asked to do the honors.  

Here are the three most important things about it:

1.  It's affirming for a broad spectrum of couples.   
My goal is to welcome all kinds of couples into the process of celebrating their lifetime commitment.  The guide works for same sex celebrations, second marriages, and it could even give you a good start on renewing your vows, if that's on your horizon.

2.  It's short and offered in an open source spirit.  
Use this guide to write a wedding ceremony over a weekend.  Feel free to copy and paste sections you like.  The more often we find common language for ceremony, the more powerful the process is.  If you do end up using sections, and feel comfortable sharing which sections you used, I would love to hear from you.   It helps a writer's learning so much to know how their words are working in the world.

3.  All of the proceeds from this book will go to Lambda Legal.  
The victory in the Supreme Court this summer was a major milestone for same sex marriage, but the work to ensure equality for all couples is not over.  As we saw with the Kentucky County clerk who refused to approve marriage licenses for same sex couples, conflict at the state and local level will continue to happen.  By buying this book you will be helping keep our LBGTQ community safe and supported.

I hope you will consider purchasing the book on Amazon today.   

It is currently available as a Kindle book.  You don't have to have a Kindle to read it. If you don't have a Kindle, all you need to do is download the Kindle app onto your phone or tablet and then purchase the book from Amazon.

If you know someone who is getting married and you'd like to give it as a gift, click on the "Give as a Gift" button that is located a few buttons down from "Buy it Now" button on Amazon.  The process is simple and easy.

Thanks for considering.


********



As it happens, this little book has had its own perfect timing.  Like all products of life on this planet, this project has had it's own inner clock, one, that I must admit, has confounded me at every step.  That is, until I started to believe that maybe this idea had a life of it's own, that maybe it was coming through me in it's own time, and my job was to do the work as it came time to do the work.  I know, you hear this and it makes no sense, yet, I believe it to be as true as sunlight.

I started back at this project last fall, after having put it down for over ten years.  That moment turned out to be just a couple of weeks before the Supreme Court released it's 2015 docket, in which it announced that it would hear Obergefell vs. Hodges.  The final edited manuscript arrived in my hands the day that decision was delivered.  And today, I offer you the final finished product on the very day I married my husband, Graham, 15 years ago.  

In a very literal way, this book was born that day.  I've written about how my wedding changed me on a website I started for the kids, called Roots to Grow.  The amount of time that has passed between then and now is mind boggling to me.  And yet, many things had to happen for me to complete the project, so in a way it makes sense.  What feels so strange though, is to look at the pictures of who I was when I started it.  For the first time in my life I look at Graham and me in our wedding photos and think, "Those were sweet kids."  They look like our younger siblings to me now, that young woman in the dress, with her short hair, and her beau, the young man in his first tuxedo.  

After fifteen years, life has shaped us into different people.  There was that car accident when I was in when I was 29.  And that yoga class I took when I was pregnant that introduced me to one of my soul mate friends.  Brett's bike accident.  My first article published.  Graham's  company founded in the sunny upstairs corner of our house.  Not to mention bringing three daughters into the world.  Big things and small things have made their mark. 

Like this book project, life is having it's way with us.  

In the case with Writing your Wedding Ceremony, the things life was asking me to do with it felt a lot like failure.  Things like not finishing it for many years, things like writing it very, very badly at first.  Things like showing that very, very bad version to a professional editor whose opinion I respected and feared.  All those moments, as they passed through my filter of judgement, felt pretty awful.  But when I look back now, I see that there was a hint of elegance to the order of things that had little do to with my own plans. And in the end, I am happy for the relationship between this book and me.  We've learned a lot together.

Thankfully, my relationship with Graham has included much less struggle.  The vast majority of our days so far have been blessedly happy, the ones that have been otherwise have been good medicine.  In those moments when we've argued, or hit personal hurdles, we've seen each other through.  And as any married couple knows, those see it through days are no fun, but in the end, they are the ones that forge something new.  They are the natural forces, rich with learning, that have transformed us from two sweet kids into partners for life.

At fifteen years we've seen enough of life to know we're lucky, that not all couples have the chance to develop a softened patina before the really tough blows start coming down.  To have had that chance is one of the biggest blessings of my life.  At fifteen years, I'm grateful for happy days, but almost more grateful for the tough days.  They have been our little tide pools of struggle where we learn to swim and keep each other afloat.  

Our marriage is one of the strong steady things in my life, and certainly, the most important source of strength for keeping my writing moving forward.

So as I offer this project to the world on our Anniversary, I just want to throw a shout out to Graham.  Happy Anniversary, Honey.  This one is for you.

Love,
Cristina