Why Didn’t She Leave?

Because her husband had the health insurance and her child had a serious medical condition and she knew in her gut he was mean enough to cut them both off the health plan if she tried anything.

Because daycare is so expensive, and she couldn’t afford to leave and wait for a two-year court case to resolve to force her partner to pay half of the childcare so that she could still work.

Because she was afraid he would come find her wherever she moved and then there would be a loud fight and her neighbors would be upset and then she’d lose that apartment.

Because she had tried to leave once and he had pulled an outrageous stunt that scared her and let her know how far he would push things.

Because she thought about leaving every day and was still trying to figure out how.

Because healthcare is so expensive and she had had cancer so she had to wait to finish her degree and then somehow find a job with health benefits, which would take a few years and some luck.

Because she has been relentlessly trained by the memes and self-help that she should look for the bright spots and be grateful and happy and so that is what she spends her bit of emotional energy on, feeling guilty that she’s so unhappy and wishing she could have a better attitude.

Because he had been raised to feel like everything he did was wrong, and this sort of felt like home.

Because the politicians set things up to where there was no way to escape and they wanted her scared and married even if it killed her.

Because her mom had just been diagnosed with dementia but there wasn’t enough money for an expensive nursing home, and if she left she would be somehow working full-time and taking care of her mom full-time. The math just didn’t work out.

Because the one time she’d called the cops on him, they hadn’t done anything, so she knew that if she left and he did something stupid it would have to be horrific for them to believe her.

Because she just found out she was pregnant again, and though she didn’t exactly want to raise another baby and though she knew it would make it even harder to leave eventually, she needed that sole spot of additional joy in her life. And because it was a two-hour drive to get an appointment to get it taken care of, and if she took a few days off of work she’d lose her part-time job.

Because at least he had his shit together more than her father did, and he did treat her kindly sometimes, and you had to be grateful for some cosmic sense of progress. Didn’t you?

Because it was her country and she didn’t have friends abroad and she loved parts about living in this stupid place and anyway she had no where else to go.

 

 

 

(This is kind of a poem, not all my personal experience but extrapolating from what I do know.)

The Essay as Buddhist Practice

Sitting on my cushion to meditate, I sometimes feel like I’m burrowing inside an essay. And at the keyboard, I take out a few Buddhist tools to chip away at whatever subject I’m pursuing.

One of my teachers, Elizabeth Mattis Nyamgel, has a book called The Heart of an Open Question, which was really important to me and which seems to me to be a manifesto for essaying. The idea of questions without answers, and the goal of being open to look at life with an open, questioning heart, has become also what I find most compelling about the essay. The essay allows me to practice and reinforce the things I value in Buddhism, including reflection, not clinging to a single explanation or closing down around “rightness.”

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Book cover for The Logic of Faith: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Certainty Beyond Belief and Doubt; the graphic design is a gold sphere at the top of the cover with the title in red inside it,and the subtitle below it on a white field

The practice in Buddhism of examining experience, and the encouragement to test out received truths for one’s self rather than to passively accept what is handed down, has strengthened my voice as an essayist and writer, as someone who doesn’t necessarily comes to conclusions but who can record the process of looking. The notion of interdependence, too, has a deep resonance with my experience in the world as a nonfiction writer: it’s all connected. I love burrowing into a tangent and finding that it opens into discoveries and themes I need to explore, helping me to get to know my own life.

I am happy to be on the launch team for Elizabeth’s new book, The Logic of Faith, which is an in-depth exploration of a logic called Madhyamaka in which Buddhist practitioners are asked to look for singular discrete entities—including the self—and not find them as a way to become comfortable with our state, which is one of interdependence, and to increase our ability to bear the uncertainty of life with grace.

As a writer, I imagine I’m not unique in finding crossovers between my different passions; life is so interconnected and interdependent that almost any pursuit or discipline produces insights and metaphors that apply to writing. And essaying is about looking deeply at life, an activity that requires spiritual support and often delivers spiritual fruits. At the same time, Elizabeth stresses the values of humility and awe in all of her writing, so I’m not saying that I’m such an enlightened being who has figured things out. Instead, Buddhism has supported my feelings of being okay with not-knowing and being on the path.

Recommitting to Action

Remember back in 2016 when we thought the year was so impossible because a bunch of rock stars died? Hahahaha. Ha. Ha. (I’m not trying to downplay those losses, but the losses since then have been… Ugh. Yeah.) So you’ve lived through 2017 too, and it was stunningly rough. And now we are in for the long haul, right?

For me, the news has become at times over 2017 a source of deep despair, and there’s no getting around that. At the same time, the news is sometimes so bad that it pushes me into a state of numb despair. Hoping someone will post a convenient action item on Facebook just isn’t working anymore–there are too many actions to take, too many outrages, and it would take a full-time staff to sort out what to do and how to do it.

Wonderfully, in the midst of this national cyclone bomb of crises, a number of activists have stepped up to aggregate action and news together. Some break down news to discuss its activist implications, and others lead to action steps. These are the folks that have saved some shred of piece of mind for me. Maybe you’ll be inspired by one or more of these projects and get on their mailing lists.

I’m offering these because I think it’s a good time to recommit to engagement and taking action. Let’s square our shoulders and get ready to fight for the Blue Wave of midterm elections. What have I missed? What’s helpful for you in making decisions about how to use your activist energy?

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Logo: Image of stylized torch held by Statue of Liberty with a red flame on a green background

Americans of Conscience Checklist–Jen Hoffman curates this newsletter, which has a measured and encouraging tone that really seems designed to keep people going for the long haul. I kind of love her. You receive a newsletter on Sunday night framing what’s going on for the week in a non-screamy tone. Instead, she includes plenty of encouragement about what the community is achieving. Each email includes links to a Google doc with actions to take during the week. And one Sunday a month is “rest and reflection,” so there’s no action, just questions to think about.

 

 

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Screenshot of ad for 5-calls phone app: two phones, one white in front of one black, both displaying 5-calls screen shots. Logos beneath read: Download on the App Store and Get it on Google Play

5 Calls–www.5calls.org–This is a great site. I don’t visit it enough anymore and I am RECOMMITTING in 2018 to getting my ass in gear. Every week they offer a wide menu of calls and issues you can make based on your most pressing concerns. There’s even a way to track your progress on the site, and what’s more, it makes you feel really good. When you hit the five calls, it’s like reaching your FitBit step goals (not that that ever actually happens for me). And honest to gosh, there is an APP you can download! That is the coolest. I just downloaded it.

 

 

 

Higher Heights–This isn’t a weekly action site, per se, but it supports the efforts to get

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Logo of a red square surrounding a white set of stylized steps on the left. To the right, the words “Higher Heights” in blue.

Black Women into leadership. There’s an online community. From the site: “Higher Heights is building a national strategy to mobilize one million Black  women and dollars by 2020 in order to harness their collective economic and voting power.” That’s clearly a great cause, so I send them money whenever I’m feeling depressed and then I feel better.  They are seeking Black women to host salons to engage other Black women in political organizing and outreach.

 

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Indivisible in beige letters on a blue background, with the logo that looks like a small letter “i” turned into the stylized heads and torsos of people. Kind of. Symbols for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram below it.

Indivisible–Indivisible.org–I don’t like the word “robust” as a techie buzzword, but this site deserves the adjective. It is CHOCK FULL of all kinds of good info, background, and action alerts. They do a caller-to-caller peer app that lets you sign up to call voters in swing states when there are issues that Congress needs to lobby on. The site is increasingly organized around actions taken by local Indivisible chapters but also includes plenty of actions for activists living away from those groups.

 

 

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Image from the Postcards to Voters site of several people gathered in front of a table with art supplies and postcards on it. The nine people are smiling and holding up postcards and stamps.

Postcards to Voters–postcardstovoters.org–My friend Ann let me know about this site, and I’m just getting involved. This very organized effort hand-writes postcards to voters in upcoming elections and has an automated text bot for letting you receive addresses. There is a Facebook group and there are also even companion vendors that will sell you pre-stamped postcards. A concrete way of making a difference that has been shown to get results on election days.

 

 

 

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Three white letters– WTF–on a black background. Talk about no B

WTF Just Happened Today?— This news aggregator is a guy, Matt Kiser, who has morphed this into his full-time job, and I don’t think I could function without his news bullets. He doesn’t cover everything, but he does cover the most important stuff in the briefest way possible, with emojis and with links to the news stories. For me, he’s been essential in sorting out the ongoing investigations into the Trump Administration’s Russia-Gate. There’s also an online community where you can chat about the news, and it’s provided some very informed context when all I could do is scream into the living room: “WTF????” And there’s a podcast. What I love about this is it comes out in the evening, after the daily shit-show, so you can basically digest things and sleep. There aren’t really any action items but the site makes functionality and therefore action possible for me.

 

Women’s March Power to the Polls–I’m putting this on here in hopes that something better develops from the site. Right now there’s lots of background, and a place where you can register to vote online and presumably help other people register to vote. There used to be a guide for doing voter registration drives but now I can’t find it on the site.

What are your action go-to’s?

 

Image of two signs on a white wall. One says "Elevator" and the other says "Yell into elevator for service. We can hear you really!"

Doing the Work: Finding Places to Publish

To new creative writers, the array of literary journals available can seem quite overwhelming, and I completely understand that. However, I’d encourage you to do the slow work of navigating this universe rather than hoping for a shortcut. Often new writers will ask, “Where do you think I should publish this piece?” and I’d like to urge you to save your favors. If you’re going to ask a writer to do something for you, I would advise you not to do this. It’s time-consuming for busy writers and teachers to tailor publication recommendations and to brainstorm about this. I will often forward calls for entry or names of publications on my own if I run across a call for entries that is perfect for a writer whose work who I am already familiar with. But in general, I like to discourage this because it’s not actually something that is productive for the writer asking the question. If I make recommendations like this, I know that what I am really doing is short-circuiting a writer’s own development and awareness of the publication universe.

Here’s why: every writer is unique, and every writer develops his or her list of top publications based on individual publication goals, tastes, and careers of writers they’d like to emulate. You should make the list of publications that you aspire to, and you should keep updating it. This should be something you take ownership of for yourself if you are taking yourself seriously as a writer.

How do you find your list of literary journals?

  1. Writers read. So to be a writer, you should be reading literary journals to see who’s doing what and to be inspired and challenged. Noodling aimlessly around literary journals online doesn’t seem “productive,” but it is, and it will be the only way to really get to know the universe where you intend to keep publishing throughout your career.
  2. Start with identifying the “big ones” in your genre. To find these, look in the bibliography of anthologies or “Best” collections to see where the pieces were originally published. In many cases, this list is all you need.
  3. Another way I like to build this list for myself is to follow closely writer I admire and look at their bios to see where they have published. There’s no shame in emulating a writer you admire down to trying to follow in their publication footsteps!
  4. Continue adding to this list by following links from your favorite literary journals online to other publications.
  5. Read and sign up for emails that aggregate and comment on content from literary sites such as LitHub, The Millions, and Electric Lit. This is the universe you want to get familiar with.
  6. Subscribe to CRWROPPS-B, an absolutely essential service that sends out lists of places to publish. Just sorting through these emails is professional development for a writer!
  7. Consult databases including NewPages and the Poets and Writers database of literary journals, using search key words if there’s something specific you are looking for that you can’t find by other means.
  8. Follow writers on social media, as they will often share calls for entries and publications from outlets they admire.
  9. Get together with other writers who are interested in expanding their lists and pool your ideas!
Doing this work enables you to gain the confidence you need in your ability to navigate the world of literary journals. Getting familiar with these outlets will help you understand your competition and gain a deep and complex sense of what literary journals share your aesthetic as well as allowing you to set concrete goals for yourself.
Good luck!

The Engines of Nonfiction: Kindling Surprise

This thing is a large plastic container I bought in the duty free section of a German airport on the way home from my aunt’s funeral a few years ago. My mom was with me, shaking her head and laughing at this most irrational purchase. It was FILLED with my most favorite candy, called in German a Kinder Überraschungs-Ei, or surprise egg.

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A plastic container of a smiling red and white egg wearing tennis shoes and a baseball cap, with “Kinder surprise” on its belly and holding aloft a plastic banner that says, “Full of Surprises!”

You unwrap the chocolate egg and crack it open, and inside each egg is a toy that is usually a million times better than a Cracker-Jack surprise, though I think you technically can’t buy these in the US because they have tiny parts that someone might swallow (if they were to SOMEHOW UNHINGE THEIR JAWS and swallow something that is the size of a real egg. Anyway. I am still able to buy them in the US but I won’t reveal my source.)

I am bringing this to class today to talk about that piece of advice attributed to Robert Front that comes up often in writing classes: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” We read to discover, and the creation of that feeling of discovery is kindled best when it happens first for the writer, when the writer puts something together on the page that they didn’t expect to encounter.

But, as I am a writing teacher, I need to say more than this. So how do we go about surprising ourselves?

Then… because I never studied geography, I feel free to use three layers of the earths crust as a metaphor.

  1. Juxtaposition: This is the “top layer” of surprise in an essay, the stuff we can see on the surface. Anytime we can put two seemingly unrelated things next to each other, that creates the energy and tension that can surprise the reader. I’m teaching Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful essay “Woven” today in class, and I think her movement back and forth between this vivid myth and her own life story provides the energy to move the piece forward and also to make the reader never really sure where the author will go next. And I’m betting that Yuknavitch felt the same way when she was writing it, full of surprise herself as the myth in all its details illuminated elements of her own experience.
  2. Association: But how do you find something to juxtapose with a story from your life or something that happened? This is where the poetry muscle of association comes in, going one level deeper in excavating how surprise works. Rather than using logical connections, you have to sometimes settle down and really watch your mind. What seemingly bizarre images or memories are triggered when you write about a certain topic? What do you feel in your body and mind when you are confronting a topic? Why, when I smell crayons, do I think of road trips, and what does that mean? Why does a print of a painting I have in my office remind me of my dad’s face? In each case, you take the leap into a feeling of not being exactly sure where you are going. Rather than controlling the narrative and making a logical case, you are leaping into the way your mind really works, and there are things to discover if you take that risk. If I then sit down to write about all the connections that might come up between crayons and the time in the car during my childhood, I am definitely going to surprise myself because I don’t know at all what those connections mean.
  3. Self-Interrogation: Ultimately, the deep layer of nonfiction that creates surprise every day in writing is to always have a voice in the background that asks, “But what does that mean? Why do you think that way? Is it really true all the time? Where does that belief come from? Why do you remember it like that? How would someone else feel in your shoes? Why do you like or dislike that? What does this connect to? What is invisible here?….” And on and on. And all those questions are bound to take us somewhere that was never apparent at the beginning of an essay.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.

Your Trumplandia Horoscope

for the week of November 6

 

Aries: Ok, so you  may have burned through almost all of your Facebook friends with fits of blocking and unfriending. It’s been a rough few years: yes, this past one, but also the campaign. The thing is, some of those people you unfriended were bots, but others were misguided souls who might–who knows?–have come to their senses. Make this refriending week, or just visit their walls to see whether they’re still coated with hate memes. Continue speaking up in “mixed” audiences where political backgrounds are unclear: somebody’s got to speak the truth. Try a new flavor of Doritos, but don’t worry about that “Biscuits and Gravy” flavored potato chip; it’s trash.

Taurus: There is no tunnel in the bottom of Netflix that leads to a different presidency. You are going to have to open your mind’s eye for, like, one minute a day and really see and feel what is happening. Give $20 to an organization that can use it. That is a gift to yourself to help you get unstuck. Do something this week that involves getting your hands dirty, whether it’s repotting a plant, changing the litterbox, or … whatever.

Gemini: Are you convinced yet that you might actually have to vote next time? You have one year until midterms. Meditate on the potential in the universe by looking into your own eyes in a mirror and chanting, “It’s bigger than me, but I am a part of it.” Look at it this way: you don’t have to admit you’re wrong, but you can evolve. Wear more blue.

Cancer: You’re doing beautifully even though you berate yourself. Paint a picture or go for a walk. See the good you put into the world. Take a day to do nothing. During this day, burn something to symbolize letting go of that 45-supporter in your life; that person’s destiny is their own, and it undoubtedly involves a reckoning that you do not need to deliver. Free yourself. Create a secret ritual in your yard directed at your Trump-loving neighbor to draw a zone of safety, and then make cookies and deliver them. That will fuck with their minds so badly.

Leo: Welp, having a king really sucks, right? Consider this week what else you have wrongfully enthroned, which fake royalty you should depose, what old central ruling ideas need to go. You don’t need to rip them out of their gilded chairs yet, but begin plotting and finding like-minded friends to help you. Have you considered running for office? Of course you have. Well… why not? Consider letting your hair grow.

Virgo: I know. Sometimes you still wake up in a panic, and it feels as if you have been trying to think through Nate Silver’s numbers all night. We are all going to have permanent 2016 shakiness, but you need to find a new ground to stand on. Even when the ground appears to be shaking. What will be your new base? What can you believe in? Whatever it is–modeling clay, your local immigrant rights organization, nice pens–go all in. Love the things and the people who need your love.

Libra: In some cases there is no decision to be made. It feels the same as a decision now, this nagging uncertainty, and this has thrown you into decision-funk. But the glorious truth is that you’re free from deciding right now. Act in the ways that you always do, showing the self-care skills you have accumulated, and just follow. Follow the lead of those email blasts, write your representative without wondering whether it will do any good, and peel the backing off that bumper sticker. It’s the little things that make the big things. I applaud your resolve in not sleeping with gun nuts and people who “aren’t into politics.”

Sagittarius: I know, I know: it’s the shittiest time ever to have finally come into your own. But you are doing it. You are speaking your truth, slaying with memes on social media, finding new friends, and finally feeling what it means to connect the personal with the political. Your realizations might feel draining to you, but keep on doing it: you are a moral compass for others. Go ahead, eat more cheese. These are tough times.

Capricorn: Before you can rebuild, you have to admit that you’re at a kind of bottom. And this is where you are, exhausted with TWO YEARS SOLID of over-reading, over-researching. You were talking about Cambridge Analytica before the story broke, you saw it coming and your brother in law just laughed at you. It takes a toll to be a Cassandra. Stop talking to your brother-in-law and start a blog.

Aquarius: Stop hate-reading Fox News on your phone. Stop hate-reading ultra-left insider snark publications with hyperbolic language that call out everyone but themselves as sell outs and neo-liberals. Snark is going to extinguish your will to act. You know that’s not movement building, but you can’t change them. You have accumulated enough political experience to make anyone cynical, so just return to what you know: getting to know someone and suggesting they come with you to a meeting. Don’t worry about “The Left.” Get a subscription to In These Times or Labor Notes and try to understand your cat’s multi-layered personality.

Pisces: Every action desperately needs pinatas and puppets. Stop trashing on yourself for not being able to make a “real contribution.” Color and laughter are as essential as food and water. If the 1960s were the Age of Aquarius, this is your age. Even if your crafts and skills are old-school. Take a picture of that painting or drawing and post it on Instagram. Well, start an Instagram account first.

Scorpio: We are waiting. Get out your lasers of hate and revenge and coordinate; direct them toward our capitol city and GO. Use the power you have waited your entire lifetime to use. Also please consider leading classes at your local community center on such topics as “Ways to Sustain the Fire–and Stoke the Necessary Rage.” We need this. I never thought I’d say that, but we do.

*I have no astrological training, though I like horoscopes.

 

 

 

 

Trauma Anniversary, Nov. 8

Some anniversaries of loss come, for me, in a kind of anxious restlessness, where I’m churning far above my body, wondering why I feel so disconnected. Others come with the feeling of being pulled into a pit. In many cases, I’m not self-aware enough to really understand what motions my body and psyche are going through until I look at the calendar. The body remembers.

I’ve been feeling an uptick of anxiety lately, and the easiest reason is always to look at the headlines. We have nonsense for a leader. We have people valiantly struggling to maintain some semblance of safety or reliability, and another crew working hard to set on fire or neglect the very bottom of the barrel in terms of the social contract. And North Korea and the EPA and CHIP… you know. You probably know it all and can recite ten additional completely alarming developments in the last 24 hours.

But the body remembers, and it occurred to me recently that we are approaching what was, for many of us last year, a supremely anxious time. Then, on the evening of Nov. 8, anxiety and hope turned to a feeling of “I knew it” or maybe shock mixed with additional possible layers of complete fear. The bottom had dropped out. November sucked, and he wasn’t even president yet.

I did a lot of crying in those days, and a lot of waking up crying. Like, coming to consciousness and finding myself already crying. I’m doing that less these days, and that’s not because I’m used to this as the “New Normal.” It’s because one simply must function, as one does in times of war and protracted national emergency. I’m feeling tides move in and out, tides of despair and overwhelm and then the completely functional instinct to do the next right thing. We are doing this as best we can, and people are doing amazing activist work.

I’m very interested in memorialization, in remembering. In looking at hard things and marking them so that we can integrate them, as hard as they are. I offer this because it has helped. Once I said to myself, “Some bad shit exploded last year at this time,” then I was able to settle down, to see it and say, “Yep. That was some serious floor-falling-out bad shit.” It’s continued to be bad, but that was a rough transition in those weeks.

The body remembers. So here we are. One foot in front of the other.

How will you mark it? How will you see it for yourself, nod to it and say, “I see you. And yet here I am”?