religion & spirituality

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 22 Comments

She wore white

October 26, 2016 | 15 Comments

By the final presidential debate, who could deny that our nation’s howling retrograde armies have assumed the bodily form of Donald Trump? In the face of ignorance and evil, Hillary Clinton acquitted herself almost flawlessly and looked fantastic. Her white suit alluded to the long struggle by women in America for equal treatment—and thereby stood, as well, for justice for all. In contrast, Trump was his usual vile self, and the Women of the House of Trump dressed in black—Melania capping her ensemble with a “pussy-bow” blouse, as if to refer dismissively, from the summit of haute couture, to her husband’s vulgarities. Symbolism has never had it so good.

There’s been so much inspired ink on what Trump’s surprising level of support means. The dominant narrative, of course, is that it springs from economic pain among America’s middle- and lower-middle classes. But clearly in this backlash there’s also a strong racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, homophobic component. Trump’s sole gift as a leader may be, in stirring the embers of fear and pain, to kindle rage. As a progressive who fervently believes in American exceptionalism, I’m worried. A proven cure for angry, unexamined feelings is education, which leads to consideration of others’ viewpoints and to self-inquiry, but that’s a slow process.

As for Clinton’s steely pragmatic nature, similar doubts might’ve been sounded about Abraham Lincoln, who worked as a tough, amoral lawyer. He represented a railroad. Who could have predicted his rise to personal and political greatness? That is, besides pretty much the entire South?

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The noble Bob

October 19, 2016 | 12 Comments

Bob Dylan’s work is like barbeque or Mexican food—some is better, but it’s all good. It was news last week that he got the Nobel Prize for literature. It hasn’t been news for a long time that he’s a genius. But then, genius is simply brilliance plus output. Then again, he’s a genius among geniuses. I count it as my good fortune to have lived during a time when an artist on the order of William Shakespeare has been belting it out for us.

He’s written timeless gems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and surreal masterpieces like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and born-again testaments like “Slow Train Coming” and “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody,” along with too many love songs to count. He created one of my favorite sub-genres: his own spooky Mojave stories like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Man in the Long Dark Coat.” And, always, shooting through everything, the blues.

I try not to be amazed at those who don’t respond to his work—there’s no accounting for taste: anyone who attends church learns that when some hate the minister you love. And some need art, even his, more than others do. But there’s something for anyone in Dylan’s phases. You can start anywhere, and work forward and back. But I might suggest Blood on the Tracks. If you demand his prettiest voice, there’s Dylan’s wonderful Nashville Skyline, recorded with Johnny Cash. Critics are fun, though uneven as guides except for maybe Greil Marcus. Most of them utterly missed the beauty, power, and risk of Dylan’s overtly Christian period.

Dylan reportedly still hasn’t acknowledged his Nobel Prize or told the academy he plans to attend the awards ceremony. He’s ornery. And busy, so very busy. Currently on tour as a singer, he’s also a painter who’s recently been featured for his work as a sculptor. According to a September article in the New York Times, he built the iron archway for a $1.3 billion resort casino at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor. As he told us in 1964’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”

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In dogged pursuit

September 14, 2016 | 17 Comments

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!”—Donald Barthelme

Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about. Love, I suppose. It’s not all about Tess. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.

Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.

Having written other essays, though, I know I better try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.

“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. Thankfully, I’m past the opening and struggling through the middle, with part of the end drafted. Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful.

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The writing life’s mysteries

August 24, 2016 | 14 Comments

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”—Henry David Thoreau

Neat sentiment, Henry David, and it seems apt for writer Dani Shapiro, who has quoted it herself. Her love is writing, and especially chewing over the past in memoir. Recently in the New York Times Book Review, however, Shapiro discussed the dilemma of being a serial memoirist:

“When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. It is along the knife’s edge of this discipline that the story becomes larger, more likely to touch the “thread of the Universe,” Emerson’s beautiful phrase. In this way, a writer might spiral ever deeper into one or two themes throughout a lifetime —theme, after all, being a literary term for obsession—while illuminating something new and electrifying each time.

“But some readers of memoir are looking for secrets, for complete transparency on the part of the author, as if the point is confession, and the process of reading memoir, a voyeuristic one. This idea of transparency troubles me, and is, I think, at the root of the serial memoirist’s plight. My goal when I sit down to write out of my own circumstances is not to make myself transparent. In fact, I am building an edifice. Stone by stone, I am constructing a story. Brick by brick, I am learning what image, what memory belongs to what.”

Shapiro makes subtle and profound distinctions. Distinctions between publishing memoir and privately journaling. Between personal writing and mainstream journalism. Between life stories and idle gossip. Between settling scores and discovering deeper truths. This is invaluable in extending the conversation on memoir, and in helping refine understanding of the burgeoning genre.

I’m impressed by Shapiro’s frankness and depth. She addresses directly critics’ charges or anyone’s fear of wallowing, of having a different story than your siblings do, of inflicting on others your navel-gazing.

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A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Paul Kalanithi had his life mapped out: 20 years of medical practice followed by 20 years of writing. Amidst that span, marriage and children, vacations and celebrations—plenty of time to repair the strains in his marriage caused by his tenacious pursuit of medical excellence. Found riddled with cancer late in his surgical residency, already a gifted neurosurgeon at age 36, he soldiered on for a time. While terminal himself, he operated on others.

Finally lacking the endurance for surgery, he concentrated on writing When Breath Becomes Air. In just under two years left to him, he wrote about his cancer treatments, about medicine as a high calling, about his past and ongoing life. He also became a father, nine months before he died, at age 37.

His cancer responded well to initial treatment, but returned. He explains his reaction to seeing those scans, which told him his end was coming fast:

“I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth. I drove home and told Lucy.”

Few have been more prepared than Kalanithi to make sense of mortality. Growing up in Arizona, the son of a cardiologist, he’d planned to be a writer partly because of how hard his father worked. The price of medicine seemed too high. But then he became a neurosurgeon.

Weaving stories of surgeries he performed or treatments he witnessed with his own experiences as a patient Kalinithi reveals himself not only as intelligent but as deeply empathetic to patients. ­Like the rest of us, as a patient himself he had fine doctors and fair—and one awful resident who almost killed him, it seemed as much from ego and lack of empathy as from inadequate experience. When Breath Becomes Air might be assigned in medical schools to address what seems a vexing nub: always building technical expertise while blending that skill with one’s humanity

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Writer, know thy own demon

July 27, 2016 | 12 Comments

Writing takes energy. The hot weather system lying across America has sapped mine. Or maybe it’s allergies—an early ragweed bloom. Like an old timer of yore, I find my body casts its own vote via joints and sinuses. My former doctor, a great technician, used to scoff about complaints regarding intangibles like atmospheric pressure—he’d actually laugh in my face—but I knew what I felt. Writing this took two medicinal pots of coffee.

When my book appeared two years ago, my blog took a hit—all circuits were busy. Maybe that’s just focus—but focus is, or bespeaks, a form of energy. The other thing I know for sure is a writer embeds energy in prose or poetry. I’ve always said readers go to writing to experience another’s emotional reality, but if they don’t find energy there, they leave. You can feel it, the energy in words and sentences.

Major illness is one thing, but how annoying when something like pollen pulls your plug. E.B. White wrote about the debilitating effect of allergies. The malaise they cause. Periodically, and when ragweed blooms in late summer, sometimes I exist in a stupor, dosing myself with Claratin, Alka-Seltzer, chocolate, caffeine.

However bad I feel, I’m always grateful when I realize the cause is physical. Because lack of energy mimics depression. The body is literally depressed, when flooded with histamines. So that’s the feeling the mind experiences. Regardless of cause, it’s hard enough to exist in peace, let alone to run a startup donut chain or write a novel when you lack physical or psychic energy. Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer is really about how to nurture yourself as a person and writer so you can steadily work.

Of course, Brande’s advice concerns not illness but mental or emotional blockages. In that realm, what roils my moods is fear. Where it comes from, I don’t know. But when the writing is especially hard and discouraging, I’ve learned to suspect that old foe.

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