Keep Moving Forward

There are some things I feel very confident about. But it’s weird, isn’t it, the kinds of things people can feel comfortable with and still worry about other things that might seem less significant?  And how some things can intimidate one person but not faze the next?
Maybe it’s just years of desperation in grad school, but we pretty much had to be able to teach what we were assigned, and it made me scrappy—not an expert, but enough to teach a lower division class. I taught books wildly out of my areas of expertise, and made it work. Give me some library time, and I am confident that I can find a way to make most literature accessible, and maybe even entertaining.
So you’d think, maybe, that I could plan a crafty workshop.
I mean, I can, but I worry. Since I’ve found My Hobby (after years of trying on others that were temporarily interesting, but ultimately I didn’t stick with them), I’ve tried a number of ways to fund it and to get more out of it. My hobby is paper-crafting or card-making. I also make gift bags and tags and other gift-wrapping paraphernalia. To support this hobby/habit, I have resorted to flogging crafting supplies at in-home parties like Tupperware, and to indulge my desire to share what makes me happy, I have had “Make your own holiday tags” parties every December for the last several years.
The tag party works because it feels like such low stakes. People make little gift tags for the holidays. They’re quick to design and assemble; I put out a number of samples with appropriate materials, and off they go. Usually people leave with a dozen (or twenty) tags, and don’t have to buy them that year. I like that. I think the gift wrap industry is outlandish and have ever since a friend gifted my son a $10 Lego set and gave me the receipt in case he had it already. She had also paid $10 for a bag, tissue, and a card. I was mortally offended for her and vowed to address that.
So I do the tag party. I’ve given up on having the parties where people buy stuff.  My heart was never in it, and it’s a hobby for me, not a career, so I just provide the materials and let people play. That makes me much happier.
This year, though, they also wanted to do cards. You’d be amazed how much I fretted.
For someone who has pulled off half a dozen tag parties, a card party shouldn’t have been daunting, but it was. It really, really was. Cards seem like something a real crafter teaches, not some dilettante who stamps more for therapy than because she knows what she’s doing. The stakes felt much higher, for some reason. I still can’t quite explain why.

But I have a couple of wonderful friends who encouraged me, and who brought some extra supplies to help out, and off we went. And it was a lovely event. People made 2-6 cards instead of 12-20, but everyone had fun, and my little ambivert self found the sweet spot between having too many people depending on me for guidance and blending in with the crowd and making some of my own cards.
It was glorious, and now I’m slightly embarrassed by how much I fretted about it. When I was in grad school, and worrying about whether or not I could finish my dissertation, my wise 29-year old husband said to think of it like a boat you’re building. If you know what a boat needs and you get the materials and spend time building it, you need to trust that it will float, because that’s what boats do. Trust the boat to be boat-like.
And this feels like one of those times, when I should have been able to say “trust the boat” and move forward, but I didn’t. The good news is I get credit for pushing myself in to uncomfortable territory and doing just fine. And every time I do that, I have a little bit more street cred.

The box: In Memoriam

My dad arrived in the mail today.
A box.  I had to sign for him.
The postal carrier was sweet—told me to focus on happy memories—and then handed me the box. The body. My dad’s ashes. How have we come to such a place where the dead are mailed? I received a box of books at the same time. Didn’t have to sign for them. People are more important than presents, but not so important they can’t be boxed and shipped—moved from holding facility to mail truck with no one knowing or caring what’s in the box. That’s my dad. Be gentle with him.
And yet no need. He’s not there. It’s a box. It’s full of ash. I haven’t opened it yet, but I’ve seen other “cremains.” He’ll look like fine sand from an Oregon beach, some bigger bits poking out of the dust. He won’t be wearing his NEVADA suspenders or his dorky little glasses case that hung from his belt loop on a carabiner for as long as I remember him. No teeny agenda book in his breast pocket. No mustache. No glasses. No wedding ring. All those things I collected long ago, too early to appreciate them—they were surrounded with the bitterness of losing him to dementia, but still having to steward his body through the end.
That transition complete now, I am gifted with a box of dad, and a strange freedom to reframe the objects I associate with him, to see them in light of real loss. Now he’s really gone.  Now I can’t even hold his hand or kiss his head or sing him “Stardust” anymore… I could sing to the box.
But he’s not there. He’s not in the box. He’s in my head and in my heart and in some of my movements and some of my words. He’s in my children and he’s in the wind. I felt him at Yellowstone, hiking, when I learned of his death. I took him with me through Yellowstone’s canyons and meadows, looking for wildlife while the light lasted.
He’s in my pictures; that is certain.  He wanted to be a photographer, but the closest thing the University of Alaska offered to a photography degree in 1949 was chemistry. He took some classes, then he followed different passions.  But he took pictures all his life. He once lost his camera on a trip to Canada, and some stranger found and returned it, shipping it from British Columbia to Nevada at his own cost. I have rarely seen dad so happy as when he opened that box. When I bought myself a camera in college and then returned it (I really couldn’t afford it; returning it was a very responsible, adult thing to do), he bought me a camera for my graduation. And a case. And two lenses. And four filters. He was proud that I liked taking pictures too. But it wasn’t my driving passion either, but something to document with, to create, to express how we see or at least acknowledge the appreciation that both of us have for the world.
There are other boxes to go through: boxes of slides, thousands of slides of the pictures he took. Now that he’s gone, I can go through them, and I’ll find him again, in what he found important enough to photograph and how he chose to frame it. I’ll see the world through his eyes, and I’ll have questions for him that no one will be able to answer. But in the questioning, there will be commerce. In the looking, there will be contact. And as with every time we try to see the world through another pair of eyes, there will be love.
Living · Reading

In Defense of the Prose Poem, or The Existential Escargot

Every time I teach Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, I buy another book he references in them. It’s like getting a reading list from a trusted source. Usually it’s another treasure I don’t know how else I would have stumbled across. Once, I admit, I didn’t see what he saw—I put down Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual after reading about half of it. But I’ve chased down others of his works and enjoyed them, so I still count him as a triumph.
One of my favorite discoveries was Francis Ponge. Ponge writes prose poems, which I adore. I’ve had many conversations defending this delicate art.  Ponge’s The Nature of Things (Le parti pris des choses) features in Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” because Ponge is a master of exactitude. In the quest for “le mot juste,” he takes all the prizes. He describes objects and incidents with laser precision. I read one or two occasionally when I need a shot of beauty, like an vaccine against the dis-ease of the world.
In The Nature of Things, “Snails” is by far the longest piece–over four pages. It is quite striking throughout, but the end compels me to write (but first to quote).  He calls snails “saints.”
“That is the example that snails offer us: saints who make masterpieces of their lives, works of art of their own perfection. They secrete form. Nothing outside themselves, their necessity, or their needs is their work. Nothing is out of proportion with their physical being. Nothing that is unnecessary or obligatory.

“And so they delineate the duties of humanity: great thoughts come from the heart. Live a better life and make better verses. Morality and rhetoric combine in the ambition and desire of the wise.

“How are they saints? Precisely by obedience to their nature. So: know yourself. And accept yourself for what you are. In agreement with your vices. In proportion with your measure.

“What is most appropriate to the human being? Words. Decency. Our humanism.
And he wrote this in Paris in 1936. So 350 years after Polonius told Laertes “To thine own self, be true” and 70 years before a rash of self-help books and articles in women’s magazines, here was some crazy Frenchman watching snails in his garden and thinking ‘Hey, we’re a lot alike!’ What a cool world we live in when meaningful connections can be made between such disparate entities, when patterns in the nature of things echo, or reverberate, or like images in a mirror, respond to each other.  The longer I live, the more I feel everything is connected.
And the advice is so beautiful:  Know yourself. Accept yourself. 1- in keeping with your vices, and 2- in proportion to your stature. So look honestly at yourself. Learn your weaknesses. He doesn’t say to stamp them out; just learn them. And understand your stature. I take that to mean we should acknowledge how we stand tall (our strengths, etc.) and how high we stand—to realize our position in relation to other things and people. Find your place. Plomb your depths and measure your heights. Then express yourself—all with a mind to perfecting yourself. At 17 I told a friend I was questing to create the perfect Alison, and he very gallantly asked me not to because he liked the current version fine. But who could ever stop? The point Ponge makes is that we must do it consciously every step of the way.
Discover our nature and live it. Well. Really well. Good luck out there.
(The Ponge text is taken from Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau’s translation, available on the Poetry Foundation website: The photo is of a little girl running toward self-actualization, faster than a snail or a stopped train.)

Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)