It’s counter-intuitive to have trouble falling asleep right after daylight savings time has stolen an hour from us last weekend and seemingly again every morning since. Add to that the cold I either have or am getting over (I hope) and the drowse-inducing cold medicine I took, and it makes even less sense. But there I was, wide awake at 1:30 a.m., sitting in a pile of flannel sheets and quilts while adding up all my business expenses for my taxes. A person able to collapse into deep dreaming shouldn’t be able to add numbers, although I can’t vouch for any accuracy even when I’m wide awake.
For the last week, I’ve slipped and slid through various installments of insomnia, sometimes successful catching the sleep train before midnight, but often missing it and having to wait another 45 minutes for the next one, or the next. I could blame it on the birds, singing brightly all the daylight lately, or the coyotes, united in their high-pitched howls at my running-in-circles-barking dog, who stayed out too late last night in his mission to save us. Maybe it’s the sudden burst of spring weather and early greening specks in the field. Or the dizzy of March with its sudden call to go plant sometime, wash the car, and give the bathroom a good scrubbing.
Whatever it is, such late nights for no good reason land me in more surrealistic mornings when I feel a second or two behind life no matter the strength of the tea. Yet there is a certain vague sweetness is being shaken out of my habitual meanderings so that I can, like right now, sit on the porch in a thin jacket, listen to music I’ve never heard before, and write this to you.
Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.
I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.
On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.
In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy teaching.
Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”). The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.
Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.
I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.
Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
The linguine boils happily beside the meatballs and vegetables in tomato sauce while just below them, the garlic bread warms up in the oven. On top of the water cooler, the salad waits beside the baggie of parmesan cheese, both out of the reach of the dog who will eat everything. In one bedroom, Natalie watches “House of Cards” while multi-tasking on music business stuff. In another, Daniel naps, and in the basement, Forest does things involving Reddit that I can’t quite comprehend. But the kitchen table is relatively clean, and soon they will pour around it along with Ken for our Sabbath dinner.
It’s been awhile. With everyone’s varied schedules, our young adult children living far away or moving back in for short stretches, and the general morphing of families dinners into catch-while-catch-can, we don’t get to do this much. Years ago, when the children were children, Sabbath dinners were the norm, complete with a healthy dose of sarcasm as the sweetheart babies and toddlers turns into Simpsons-quoting tweens and teens. Our regular ritual of having each person at the table say something they appreciate about everyone else turned into a chance to say things like, “I appreciate my brother for not being such a big jerk all the time this week.” Still, it was a ritual, and rituals have their power for marking off one time from another and bonding people, even in bad jokes and thinly-veiled insults.
Moreover, the Sabbath is about slowing down and savoring time, place, people, and obviously, food. This is something that continually challenges me to step gingerly over the fence of being a fierce do-er of many things to the land of being. The first few steps always feel a little shaky, but then I fall back in love with watching the sky, writing by hand in my journal, read a book with a cat asleep on me or walk with the dog. Of course, I do slip off into my computer and associated work here and there, but over time I’m tilting more toward this slowing down for a few hours or minutes or even part of a day.
Just as I’m about to close this post and drain the pasta, Ken calls: he’s running late and tells us to go ahead and eat. No, I tell him, we’ll wait.
That’s why I’m inside all day and night as much as possible. In Vermont these days, it’s officially wicked cold with a high of zero yesterday, and tomorrow big winds rushing 50mph in to splash the super cold all over us. Unlike my life in Kansas, where heading outside, even staying a while during this crazily mild winter, is a thing of beauty, here’s it’s gorgeous, freezing and deadly. We’ve been told by the college to not walk alone because of wildly low wind chills predicted.
Meanwhile, there is the need to get from Point A to Point B, which required vast planning and exact execution of many layers of clothing, from Cuddle Duds to outer layers of down. Getting dressed is serious business that entails wool socks under other thick socks, and the covering up of as much of the face as possible with hat, scarf and hood.
Then there is the step outside, which usually feels anti-climatic. “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” I think to myself for the first ten steps. Then I take the eleventh step, and I no longer think such thoughts because my legs, even in their layers, are freezing as is my nose, knees and arms. The snow and sky shines or shades itself in its loveliness while I move as fast I can in so many pounds of clothing. Then there’s a distant, then closer, doorway to enter a building and the heavy fogging of eyeglasses ensues. “Oh, it’s you,” people tend to say when I start zipping myself out, but since I can’t see them either, this works out.
From then on, there’s no running back to the dorm for a cat nap because it’s too darn cold (naps must be taken instead on my office floor). I plan my day with minimum exposure to windows or doors and maximum exposure to carbs, grease, meat, and hot tea.
Finally, when it’s time to return, I walk back bundled up and amazed at how cold my eyeballs are and, at the same time, how the new snow pouring down makes such extremes shimmer its old light to guide me home.
I wanted to eat pizza with friends. Instead, I stomped fire. Maybe that’s a strong narrative thread in my life, but in the here and now of a Saturday night, it was simply what it always is: a necessity.
Ken, Daniel and Forest were planning to burn the field near our house, and I emphasize the “near” part of that phrase. We realized, thanks to me ignoring a prairie burn several years ago because I was too engaged in talking with a pal about growing up on a kibbutz, we discovered that when we burn the brome field, native grasses emerge. To reclaim more prairie, burn more brome.
For weeks, the guys, especially Daniel, plotted and planned, assembling a line-up of water sprayers, shovels and rakes, calling people to join in, and rushing to the computer to check wind speeds while also ensuring that the ground wasn’t too damp. Saturday was perfect, they were were sure, until the wind picked up. With a wise county rule that no burning is allowed until the winds are 8 mph or less, it seemed likely no burn could take place. So we confirmed our plans for the most exquisite of pizza (yes, Limestone Pizza, I’m talking about you) and got dressed to go.
That’s when Daniel announced the winds were down to 6 mph. Dinner! I proclaimed. Fire! they proclaimed louder. In the end, like it always does, fire won. I retreated with the crazed dog, who wanted to light things on fire too, watching my guys make a lovely line of fire, fairly easy to do if you wind dry grasses like spaghetti around a pitchfork and drag it.
All was well until I heard the screaming. I couldn’t make out what they were yelling about, except for “Right now!” So I went out to help. The fire had jumped ship, leaping from where it was supposed to do its business in the field of native prairie, which we weren’t planning to burn until April. With daylight fading, and the native prairie very large, we had to get that fire out. By the time the guys accomplished this, it was near dark, and the county also has a ban on nighttime burning.
So I joined them in stomping fire. It’s a little like dancing, but with more desperation. Ken walked in front of me, spraying water at the line of flames. I followed up, stomping on all the droplets of fire. If you stomp hard enough and keep stamping, it’s amazing how much fire you can extinguish.
In the end, they burned half a field, we missed our friends, but there were enchiladas. There was also the satisfaction of making something that got out of control, then saving the day.
I wanted to go. I didn’t want to go. I figured I might, but probably wouldn’t, yet just in case, I tossed the bathing suit and towel in the car. It was too cold, I was too tired, and my brain played an endless parade of excuses. So it was no wonder that after getting some groceries, I aimed the car south toward home. The battle in my head got louder, and although “going home” had announced its victory over “going swimming,” some things aren’t over when they seem to be over. I suddenly aimed the car west and drove to the pool, totally out of my way and after extensive justification about why it was better to sit in a comfy chair at home with a blanket and a cup of tea.
After I parked and pushed myself through the hard wind and stinging snow, I continued my barrage of reasons why I needn’t do this, but now, since I’m here already, I might as well swim a few laps. Having not swam much since my medical adventure and still being anemic enough to nap twice most days, it seemed prudent to expect little and settle for less.
Once I lowered myself into the water, all bets were off. It felt, like always, so luxuriously refreshing and silky, so energizing and balancing, so much like home. I swam while singing songs and chants in my head as usual, occasionally playing over that little rants until they dissolved away. I aimed for six laps, then figured I’d do 12. I upped my expectation to 15, and since that was so close to my usual 18 laps, I kept going, stopping to sip from my water bottle on one end, glancing at the clock at the other, and in between falling back in love with the water.
In the end, I pulled myself out, happily worn out a bit and wound up more, after 40 minutes (I swim slow) and headed toward the dressing room. Within a few minutes, I was back outside, the wind, snow and wild bluster even more intense, but it bothered me less. I got to the refuge of the car, turned on the heat and exhaled. I might whine all the way to the pool, but I’m clear-headed and joyful all the way home.