Writing Empathy

  
Eternal seekers, humans are also time travelers. Separated by comforting (but illusory) shelters–houses and skin–they journey among others and through others. A simple word, a name called out in a crowd, suddenly connects the speaker and the unsuspecting, in-his-own-world hearer in a moment of communal recognition. This is the magic of language. 

But beyond the word, driving the journey of sentences, is the uncoded language neither spoken or written: the language of compassion. Compassion is the foundation of every act of communion, not merely writing. We ‘read’ others with a willingness to believe them if they are true, paint the real of our experiences. Moreover, we empathize in reading and writing, experiencing or anticipating an other’s suffering or success. A story character we have grown to love falters, missteps and fails, and we grieve.

“The state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” Virginia Woolf wrote, and it is true. To be in the story, we must suspend ourselves to be others for a while.

 

credit: https://betterwritingnow.files.wordpress.com

On Writing as Suffering

  
Joyce Carol Oates claims, “The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort.” And the effort is worth it. When our writing moves others, we affect, share and connect, thus confirming our oneness or perhaps experiencing that oneness as an ancient forgotten memory.

To reach out is to remember. The writer in all of us struggles to be understood through the code of language, a tricky bridge that requires constant constructing, honing, and refining to support the weight of ideas and experiences by which we convey ourselves to others. 

Writing is recursive, ever moving us backward and forward in thought and word–and in time.

Circling, it is an ever circling around the precise words to capture a specific piece of us we so desperately want to convey without misconstruction–that piece of the self we share using only the meager writing tools at our disposal. We search for words. Will this one mean exactly the same for my reader?
 
And the process of building sentences that flow into paragraphs, paragraphs into essays, is tedious. It takes patience. We must persist. Like herding wild horses, we must gather our unruly thoughts breaking wild in a hundred directions per second and corral them into the pen of ordered, confined blocks of coherent patterns. 

We must be painters and logicians both, fighting spirits within us.

credit: wikimedia

The zen of shop mopping

  
Nope, I will not write yet another wax-on-wax-off tale of patience and fortitude–not exactly. I can declare neither hate nor love for mopping to wring a lesson from the chore. And it is a chore, one that ends the night at the frozen yogurt shop after a long or short shift late at night. 

After turning off the “open” sign, I commence the real work of the night: twenty or thirty large and small tasks, including bagging trash, counting money, wiping counters, refrigerating perishables and washing dishes. 

There are tables, chairs, sinks, counters and machines to be wiped down; trash cans to be emptied, collected and dumped; and monitors, lights and signs to be turned off. Food needs to be collected, capped and stored. Money needs counting, sometimes re-counting, and the morning’s drawer calculating. Each of these tasks is not difficult or time-consuming but the sum total of task-to-task and back-to-front activity wears a body down, certainly sucks a mind’s attention down the drain with the dirty dishwasher. On auto-pilot.

So by the time the final chore of the hour before locking the door behind me to the other side where the cool, nearly-midnight air refreshes my sweaty face and tired bones, I am both excited and exhausted at the thought of mopping the entire store, the longest, most arduous chore of the clean up. 

Nearing the finish line, the mind takes the bloodiest beating in a marathon run. Roughed up for miles but patiently ticking the feet and hours away, the mind waits while the body mindlessly erodes. And just when the body gives out, its last shred of fuel expended, grindingly painful, the mind kicks in hard to turn the cogs, shovel the coal of the engine by sheer might and will so the machine will turn and one foot wil continue to be placed in front of the other to inch away toward the most beautiful words ever sported on a banner: “Finish Line.”

The most dangerous place, finish line in sight, is the likeliest place for injury. I want to get it done, sprint past the pain to grab the sweet god-like goal of stopping–to be done actually, not the mental done-ness of being over the whole run, race, challenge, training, preparation and completion thing that occured miles before then. 

But sprinting is foolish. Mistakes are made: a tired sloshy ankle gives way, dizziness or nausea may end the race at the medical tent, or longer recovery time incited by even more ligament and tendon strain than has already been inflicted by the previous 26 miles.

No, the better choice is to keep steady, rein in the mind’s anticipation and body’s blind adrenaline. When I have resisted the lurch–the mad dash to freedom–and kept my pace even and weary-strong, lifting my agonized thighs just a tad higher to lighten my cement feet for a slight spring to my chugging trot, I feel better, less miserable, and more attentive to the faces and cheers around me (a thinned crowd by then). Relishing the moments, I call it.

I do not relish mopping, especially after the mind stultifying hours of lulls and frenzies of retail that leave me aching to go home, actually anywhere far from slung frozen dessert. 

But mopping has its up side. 

Surprisingly, mopping involves a bit of know-how, technique, and physicality. Without a bit of coordination, the mop does not swirl, curl and swoop rhythmically and capaciously. Without the meditative steadiness of pace, space and motion in a dance of short-stepping, weight shifting, forearm tension and bicep propulsion, all in a swivel and sway of calculated spatial coverage, mopping feels and probably looks more like a wrestling match with an unwieldy, dead-weighted dragging opponent. 

Mopping too quickly expends too much energy, produces too much perspiration and inevitably leads to missed spots, besmirching reputation, calling workmanship and thereby a worker’s integrity into question–no pride in her work.

More importantly, however, rushing a mop across a ceramic tile floor deprives the mopper a pleasingly measured assessment of work in progress, a confident chipping away at an expanse, the satisfying glide of wet cloth strands across a slick surface and focused scrutiny of tile by tile smudges. Moreover, the muscle and dance of the mopping, a duet of synchronized synapse and lead-and-follow, is also lost. 

Attention to detail, to each inch of the mop’s path, unfolds appreciation for disappearing dirt slid to clear clean, and the running catalog of muscles fired in the process from wrist, ankles, balls of the feet, toes, calves, thighs, upper and lower back, buttocks, fingers and neck. 

All mindful movement yields connections to the eternal, a presence of doing and being. The deep listening of notice, of attuned awareness tricks time, averts the mind’s eye from pain to stillness–a sort of suspension–suffering to studied observation, a diversion ending in momentary neutrality and connection to the sideways slanting of life. 

Mopping–when the mood is right–takes me there.

Meraki

  
The therapeutic rewards of writing have long been touted even before Freud and “the talking cure.” Writers write endlessly about writing as compulsion, art, creativity, release, documentation, imitation, recording, reporting and life. But my scouring of the web today yielded very little about writing as a gift. Correction, writing as a gift to the reader. I read plenty advice to write as a gift to the self.

I teach writing. I have often wondered not only what every teacher has wondered (and Kurt Vonnegut wrote about in one smart anecdote he told in the New York Times “Writers on Writing” series), if writing can in fact be taught (which I think it can), but what can teaching writing teach about relationships. 

Just like all roads in creative nonfiction lead home to the writer writing about writing, all teaching should lead to life, and what is life but relationships? We live in the world with other people–most of us. Relationships are relevant. Teachers should teach relevant skills, especially in classes teaching craft.

So, I try to impress upon students that grammar is life and writing is a gift, if you write consciously and conscientiously. 

Grammar is life. The eight parts of speech comprise the basic elements, the core of the English language. However, what something is, changes in relation to what that something is next to. For instance, when is a noun not a noun? When it is up against another noun, side by side, in a sentence. Often the first noun acts like an adjective such as in the phrase “road runner” or “nurse maid.” 

Similarly, a student sits in my class as a human being, perhaps a particular gender identified to that human. Sitting in my class, that human is a student, an enrollee and a peer. At home, he or she may be a sibling, a daughter or son, or spouse. People are defined by their relationships, where they are in the world–just like grammar.

And grammar is the coded order of our language, how we make sense of things. When we write–even for our own health or need–we write to be read by ourselves and others. To be understood is to write for someone else, to paint pictures, to explain something, to teach how to do something or vent, to name a few purposes of writing.

The act of writing is a giving. To do it well, to make it beautiful, clear, precise or illustrative, we must turn our eyes from ourselves to others, see like an other. What will my reader understand? What will it mean for the reader? My great gut-wrenching desire to get “it” right–just the right word–is the desire not only to create something worthy of respect, not merely catering to compulsion, but to connect a mind to another mind in a shared moment of thought or experience.

  
Wanting to transport something from inside the self to another self is a longing to merge with another. The writer and reader are lovers, always longing for being one.

credit: 

jarretfuller.com and illuminology.tumblir.com

A Sudden Slant of Cynicism

  
“We toggle the gas pedal of politics between zealotry and apathy,” she complained. “One day we parade in protest for rights, wrongs and indifferences of some group, some perp, some activist, some governmental faction that failed or should not even exist, and the next day we go home and order up Chinese, bitching about how long the delivery service takes to go two city blocks.”

Her dilated pupils betrayed the calm cynical shellac of her words.

I wanted to reply with something equally poised and stunning, but my mind was stuck on crystals. Sometimes I get like that, in a mental tic. I read that quote by Stendhal earlier. 

What did Stendhal know about the process of crystallization, of solutes and nuclei, when he  teased out the strands of love, a taxonomy of four–the usual suspects like passion, ego, appearance, and lust? Something like that.

“I call ‘crystallization’ that action of the mind that discovers fresh perfections in its beloved at every turn of events.”

Delusion. 

We submerge others in the playground of our projections, our imagined lovelies that just get lovelier–because we want it so.

Objectification.

Sylvia Plath wrote plainer (“I think I made you up inside my head”).

“I believe you,” I replied to fill the lull of exhaustion her statement left. “So what are we going to do to change the world? Order lunch?” 

I chuckled.

She stared through me, and my thoughts squinted, wondering what lay behind me.
 

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Day 4…

No sleep. At first I could not sleep for a reason, traveling, driving, moving on. Then I could not sleep for no known reason. A body rebels, becomes overwrought at the indignity of abuse, as if the parasite and host switch places.

Recreative plant and synthetic substances exist to induce a copy of the mind of the severely sleep deprived, only overlaid with some false euphoric-producing chemical. Surrealism must have been born in the condition of dust float watchers too exhausted to move focus. 

 

 
Like this:

Slatted windows, the verticals section the sun and leaves like an ironic cell, full of light divided.

Like the days waiting for deliverance–a package, a word, an acceptance, a surrender–the intangible falls prey to the patterns of urgent need, a tendency to sliver air, measure it up and pat it down, or hone it til it’s sharp and tight, acutely folded into square hours, minute feet, and toes of sleight-of-hand time.

The shape I am, even spaghetti strands of illuminating insight pass the day, squander the vision under scrutiny and sap the fight, a nap’s prelude. Only night crawls my skin with sparks. I’ll wait, multiplying numbers to the wheels’ passing golden trail.
 

credit: maimai.sega.jp

Time Travel

Travel Hangover–

Pouring damp memories over dying embers, 

anticipating the pop, sizzle and hiss of regret,

I refuse the temptation to stir the ash,

re-confirm the smolder hides no live fire.

Driving a rented van packed with her–

obstructed the view of road left behind,

held fleeting glimpses, speeding past blades

grass, roller, razor, “Did you bring knives?”

A mother reviewing, checking, fretting

the details whirring ahead to the horizon.

Unpacking the view clear, opened us up

to ponder, muse the hours in notes, little

cares, rehearsed sentiments, deficiencies

repeated with silent knowing nods, all said.

I play the game of focused movement 

to wile the hours, trick time to obey, my eyes

follow, attached to the point out there as all

else spins and races, rattles empty spaces ablur.

A splinter swollen sore and angry, riotous red

throbbed through a chipped thumb reminds me

I waited for you on wooden slats in the park

while you twirled a dizzy dance of fractured tune.

I stifled an urge to call out, make you notice,

but the stretching sound that circled us then

that moment I was churning in your disregard

of the world, of me, of the beckoning children

could not blanket the distance between us,

the one I carried up to your bed, squared 

to the wrong wall on the wrong floor in a room. 

  
 

Sharon Olds  

I Go Back to May 1937 (from The Gold Cell)
 
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges, 

I see my father strolling out

under the ochre sandstone arch, the 

red tiles glinting like bent 

plates of blood behind his head, I 

see my mother with a few light books at her hip 

standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the 

wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its 

sword-tips black in the May air,

they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, 

they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are

innocent, they would never hurt anybody.

I want to go up to them and say Stop, 

don’t do it–she’s the wrong woman, 

he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things 

you cannot imagine you would ever do, 

you are going to do bad things to children,

you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of, 

you are going to want to die. I want to go 

up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,

her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,

her pitiful beautiful untouched body, 

his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,

his pitiful beautiful untouched body,

but I don’t do it. I want to live. I 

take them up like the male and female 

paper dolls and bang them together 

at the hips like chips of flint as if to 

strike sparks from them, I say

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

 
credit: maphappy.org

Traveling On 

  
Emerging from the mountain forests, Dunsmuir.
 
A few hours’ sleep at a rest stop north of Eugene and we rise early to greet the day bleary-eyed. Hard travel brings back the days of recent college graduate pals taking a road trip across country on $300.00, Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing on cassette the whole way. It was the 80s. 

Passing through Redding, CA, I thought of you Holly and wondered how you fare. I saw your telephone listing for a massage therapist in the Redding White Pages a long time ago, which has not changed–no email address, no Facebook or Twitter listing. Maybe you no longer exist except in a journey I dreamed. 

That trip marked me, the wonder and adventure of freedom: two young girls setting off to see beauty up and down the west coast and across the Rockies to DC where Holly’s pastry chef boyfriend awaited and our fabulous meal at the Watergate Hotel with chef Jean Louis pulling out the culinary stops to impress him. Best meal of my life up til then (not hard given my humble beginnings). The VolksWagen bug Don had us drive, the one built by a friend, gave us hell, but I would not have it any other way. That VW thematizes the adventures and misadventures of youth without plans or time to savor–just doing. 
  
We laughed getting high and chasing deer in the Rockies until Holly got altitude sickness and I was tasked to figure out how I was going to get her out of the field and back to the car. I was so thin then, her too, which was unusual for her. She tended toward the thick. Her green eyes were fierce cat eyes, her brows perpetually shaped in perfect arches, a gift of her mother’s singing praises of electrolysis. 

I still see her putting on lipstick, covering the thin bottom lip and then using that lip to coat the nearly non-existent upper lip. I watched that so many times. I coat my lips the same way, when I wear lipstick, which is not often. And I think of her doing that each time. Amazing how time sticks to the bones of memory, especially from youth. I recall reading that those early incipient memories recall to mind the clearest due to their being memory-etching first-timers, before much clutter dulls a mind to narrowing newness.

  
The green of Holly’s eyes are unmatched to the green everywhere outside Southern California, which refreshes always. Flying into LAX continually reminds me that I live on a desert, brown and brimming in short scrubby smatterings of life thrust. The effusion of greenery near Portland contrasts starkly. Of course the cloudy skies also remind me of why. 

We search for breakfast. Driver’s choice so I prepare myself for sweet, blanched flour French fine pastry.

I have married my father, someone always looking for the next meal, the gourmand’s preoccupation. Only my father feasts at the other end of the culinary spectrum: Burger King hamburgers and fries.
   
The Columbia River pours by in majestic pines, thick lush Douglas fir lined highways guided magisterially by the Cascade mountain range overlooking its charges. Keep green. Between the Dalles and Hood River, the sun bathes the trees, big leaf maples, Ponderosa pine, cottonwood and Oregon white oak, green glossy frost. The heaviness of the dense foliage leans in to the road with a threatening call. 

Crossing Bonneville dam, the daisies line the road spotty white among the tall wheatland grass and Western hemlock. Mountain crags, humps of black rock jutting through the pines decorating its crown like liberty, pop from nowhwere. Stone walls line a country road nearing the cobblestone bridge. And the clouds hover and stare.

  
Deforestation scars the mountain tops, golden grass exposed through the sparse trees, soldiers left standing in the war against industry, disrespect for the land, chunks of the grab gone for timber. Small vineyards orderly tucked behind a hill also pen the hand of man on nature’s back.

Hairy rocks, like my old man’s shoulders. What grows there on the spiny rocks fungus stained hard knocks of geological story?

4 hours outside Spokane.  

The four hour rest at the truck stop outside of Eugene refreshed what little remains of our spunk and patience. Traveling with two teens and their corny-humored father wears the patience of even saints. I am no saint. I am not remotely patient.

The mugs and the fire burnished hills, repaired by time and patience, sprigs determined to fulfill their seeded destinies. 

The Columbia Gorge, a myriad of textures and vertical measures, scrubbed to ethereal. 

  
And the sterile blanched wheat colored hills remind us that altitude changes flora. The high desert provides stark contrast to the lush landscape of the Gorge. We must be headed to Spokane soon. 

A huge expanse of farmland and chaparral heading east to Spokane peppered with silos and green houses on near barren landscapes under a great polka dot open sky. The clouds form cotton balls. Water sprinklers look like sin here in a drought. Perhaps Oregon has forgotten our drought. California certainly has not. Water will drive the next world or civil war, I am reminded.

  
And the car ahead contains my two daughters speeding up and leaving us behind. Somehow that seems destined.

The hills are dusted with aqueous green scrub, mid-high interspersed with deep forest greens and kelly greens, hunter and sage too. The nature paint protrays delightful. Somehow I think artifical irrigation is the cause.

Umatilla Irrigon region.

And she is gone. Her sister will wean her these two weeks before returning as the lone twin of upstairs living.

  
He complains of the enormity of it, the lack of planning, the endless driving non-stop, sleepless roadside napping round the clock and the expense of renting a van with its out of state costs, yet the real vastness of disbelief is in her leaving. While nothing is ever permanent and kids go off to college and come back, live back at home, the leaving and living on her own is an indelible shift forever away from the cocoon years that stretched from conception to that first departure. 

She has left her childhood behind for good as the step back in will always be from a distance, a retrospect. Like unringing a bell, she cannot ever live the purity of those flexed years of growing up seamless from birth to first steps, first walking away to another’s hands in school, first kisses, first heartbreaks, and first flights of freedom. Thoughts of self, identity and independence color a life once only colored in coloring books, backyard swimming pools, trips to the candy store or tear-stained shoe box coffins for small beloved hamsters named Hammie. 

  
No, your beef, man, is not with us, our slap dash, rag tag impromptu impossible road trip, the one with endless miles of road bearing insights among the natural sights and blights of countryside and cityscapes of the northwest, sorely needed respite from the daily doldrums of grinding work hours and spatial deprivation you also complain about as likely to kill you. 

And here we are speaking lightly of the shame of it all, the clear cutting demoralizing the Oregon hills along the Columbia, deforestation in the Amazon rain forest and water wasted on the open expanses of thirsty crops along the Washington thoroughfare while our first born worries about being good enough to last, to make it under the pressure of intense competition and her own perceived weaknesses. 

  
Struggle coats our innards, the outside world only the mirror and consequence. 

But I caught a glimpse of wince in you yesterday, the pinched frown of devastating knowledge held in check–but not enough. Despair leaked from your downward cast lower lip and fallen eyes, a momentary slip of the heart spill. 

“You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just Jordyn leaving.”

“I know.”

And we each look to our respective windows for escape into the landscape upon which we hurl our pain masked in observation, a costume of the fearful. Tears haunt us. Afraid to unleash the avalanche of suffocating cold loneliness threatening to smother us.

Through Sacramento to the California border

  
Layers of landscape stacked on the side of the road, the mountains sporting their billowy cotton-cloud-topped effusion, preceded by the barren slighted desert floor sandwiched between the tawny mountains and the tree dotted fields of golden grasses. The blur of the road smears the beauty of the region, the chaparral shrublands, open oak savannas and woodlands, smattering of pine forest, among the California buckeye, manzanita, redbud, chamise and scrub oak.
 
The vistas are heavenly golden blankets of downy cover, resting the blue of the sky, but for the serpentine wend of the wire fences, the blare of bill boards for fast food fare and home cooked rest stops miles upon miles of scarred two-lane highways, truck lined and road sign adorned.
 
We will be leaving the Cottonwood historic sections, headed to the border, through Redding to Ashland, Oregon, where we intend to dine like the gourmandisers we cultivated lo these many moons. The Sacramento River tags us “it” now and again along our straight and narrow, sometimes three-lane highway, connecting the trailers and cows and tomatoes with the rest of the world. Shasta approached.