Where I’ve Been Instead

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Today I was scheduled to be in New Orleans, for the grand opening of the newly relocated Family Justice Center there, planned to coincide with the 7 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of the creation of a Family Justice Center.  The day was meant to recognize all the work a core group of committed people have done to make a safer city for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and it was going to be a chance for me to meet many of the people I’ll be working with there over the next year.  Instead, New Orleans is preparing for the arrival of Isaac, and I’m on my way home.

This trip was to be the first of many I’ll be making to New Orleans, to work on a U.S. Department of Justice sponsored project to create an effective Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and protocol for the city.  I was looking forward to starting this job, which will undoubtedly be a challenge, as developing an effective SART anywhere is a challenge (think of all the systems you need to get to work together — law enforcement, advocacy, medical, prosecution — each understanding and valuing the others’ roles, and everyone supporting and not blaming and prejudging the victim).  But it will be a challenge in a city of survivors, people who know how to face enormous challenges and keep moving forward.  I expect to learn a lot, even as I’m bringing my own expertise in facilitation and sexual violence response to the table.

I thought about New Orleans all day today as I traveled home.  Instead of waking up in Louisiana, ready to start this new job with a celebration, I woke up to a drizzly Long Island morning.  I took the train with Adrienne into New York to get a bus home, and spent 45 minutes waiting on the corner of 34th and 8th, watching the Manhattan world flowing by.  When I arrived in Boston I had over an hour to wait for my bus to New Hampshire, so I got a sandwich and sat in the sun, thinking about the clouds in New Orleans.

I came home to a safe, dry house, a garden full of ripe tomatoes, and my flower pots on the porch still pumping out blossoms.  It was a day of city images, but certainly not the city images I expected.  I feel blessed, and I’m sending some of those blessings to New Orleans, hoping that Isaac delivers a gentle anniversary.

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Reading, Counting, Walking, Sliding

I did a lot of reading today, many books, over and over.  I read The Runaway Bunny, Spot Loves His Friends, Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants, Let’s Dance, Little Pookie, Goodnight Moon and B is for Bear.  I counted 12 “aminals” into their tin, over and over, “Zeba, Hippo, Rhino, Bear, Panda, EeEe (Monkey), Hawwee (Elephant), Beish (Giraffe), Gator, Tiga, Lepid, Gilla (Gorilla), lined them up on the floor, counted them again, put them back in the tin, lined them up on the table, put them back in the tin.  I walked around the block several times, slowly, slowly, turning around sometimes, looking at flowers and cars and trucks and the surface under my feet, splashing my shoes in puddles during the late afternoon, post-rainstorm walk.  I soaked my pants, going down a slide still beaded with raindrops, again and again, “Mimi too?  Mimi too?” until the slide was dry.

I spent the day with Emilio.  What a blast!

Thoughts on Obsession and Being On the Road Again

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Vermont last week, Chicago now, New Orleans next week, D.C. the week after.  My goodness, you’d think I was working again, which I am, though I try to tell myself that consulting jobs that add up to 10 or so hours a week isn’t really working.  And compared to my life as the Executive Director of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, it is very different.

But then I realize I’m on the road four weeks in a row and traveling makes the work a good bit more than 10 hours a week, and I wonder how I’m going to fit in an obsession with the memoir I’m working on.  Because becoming obsessed is my new assignment.

I do well with assignments, which I told Robin Hemley, the terrific writer and teacher I worked with last week at the Vermont College Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, so he gave me one.  Forget the book on the history of the movement to end violence against women that I’ve been planning to write for years (I’d asked him for some ideas about how to structure the book).  Forget the next volume of poetry I’m starting to shape in my head and on the page, steadily revising poems.  Forget the novel I wrote last year and haven’t looked at since, and the cycle of short stories, also partially in my head and partially on the page (or the computer’s hard drive).

“I’m not saying a book about ending violence against women wouldn’t be important, because of course that’s important,” he said.  “But this book (the memoir I brought to the conference for workshopping and feedback) is important.  Get obsessed and get it done.  This book could make a difference for a lot of people.”

“Really?” I said.  “I feel like I have writer’s ADHD.  I keep trying to work on all these different projects at once.”

Robin shook his head.  “No, you need to focus on this one book and get obsessed.  I live for obsession, the full engagement with creativity.”

He’s right.  The one book I’ve been truly obsessed with, The Truth About Death, is the one I’ve had published.  So how do I get obsessed as I travel for the next three weeks for various consulting jobs?  That’s a puzzle I haven’t quite figured out yet, but for now, I’m taking advantage of being in Chicago.

David and I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, first through Millenium Park, enjoying the Lurie Garden bursting with a wild variety of vegetation against a background of skyscrapers.  Then we walked over to the giant kidney bean of reflecting grass, called the Cloud Gate, which throws back looped and curving reflections.  Next were the glass brick tower waterfalls that create a flat pool perfect for splashing kids and barefoot tourists.  As we walked up Michigan Avenue to the Magnificent Mile we let all the sights and spectacles and smells of a great city wash over us, the lines of buildings and the curves of flower pots, poles and doorways and windows, sidewalk grates and bridges and towers and the river and the giant sprays of coleus that seem to be every where this summer.

I’m immersing myself in this experience, trusting that everything feeds my creativity and the energy I can bring to any obsession.

Immersion

“Nothing like a few elegies to get a party going,” Matthew Dickman said, to begin his poetry reading, which was the opening reading of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.  I’m here to immerse myself in the writing life for a week, along with about 100 other writers, including participants and faculty.  I went downstairs to the dining room for dinner, sat at a table with two women I’ve never met, and within 5 minutes we were deep into a discussion of our writing life — what we’re working on, who we’re working with here, what books we’ve written, all the books we want to write.

If you don’t know who Matthew Dickman is check him out.  A young, uniquely imaginative and funny poet.  He read a series of elegiac poems from his forthcoming book about his older brother.  The elegies actually were a great way to start the party of a week of writing, talking about writing, being with writers, workshopping writing, because they were excellent poems, delivered with grace and humor, and he thanked us all for listening to him.

At one point in his reading, Matthew asked who in the room reads the poet Bob Kaufman. Four people raised their hands.  “Oh wonderful,” he said.  “Now the rest of you can go google him and read his poems and your lives will be changed forever.  You’ll be Kaufmaned.”  So that’s what I’m going to do next.

Haiku Habit

For quite a while in my last year as the Executive Director of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, I wrote a haiku every day and posted it on this blog.  My thinking at the time was that I needed a bit of thinking each day that wasn’t about work, some encroaching deadline or knotty personnel problem, thinking that was creative and ruled by syllables and expression, not by external demands.  I began carrying my phone with me on my morning runs so I could capture the visual that often set me off into haiku composition, reordering words and phrases as I ran.

This morning I walked out of the house and there were the three cows that are pastured across the street from my porch this summer.  I know their movements across the field most likely have nothing to do with me, but whenever I see them in my corner, I feel lucky, like they’ve come to greet me.

Looking at the cows a haiku started in my head and I realized, even in this post-intense-daily-job life I’m now living, I’m still so busy I’m rarely writing in the way I’d imagined I would be 14 months after leaving my job.  Part of the problem is that I’m still working, and even though the work is consulting jobs that leave plenty of time to fit other things around the edges of the billable hours I put in, those other things include many things besides writing.

So, what about a new haiku habit?  I don’t need to read another article that tells me the only way to write is to just sit down and write.  I know that, and I am writing, it’s just not the sustained, focused level of creation I’d imagined.  So what if I commit to a haiku a day, just that space of 17 syllables (okay, I know it’s on in Japanese, not the same as syllables, as I wrote here less than a month ago, but the syllable scheme works for me), those minutes of capturing a moment?  That could lead to more minutes, more focus, more creation.

I doubt all the haikus will end up on this blog, but here’s a start to the habit.

Three cows this season
Working stubble for fresh green
In my own corner.

The Shore

I grew up on the South Shore of Boston, in Scituate, a lovely town on the ocean with an excellent harbor and numerous sandy beaches.  We occasionally went to Cape Cod when I was young (I had an aunt who lived there), and we had family gatherings for several summers on Martha’s Vineyard when I was an adult, but mostly I didn’t go to “the shore” other than to Scituate.  Why go to the ocean when home was the ocean?

When I met David he talked about his family’s tradition of going to “the shore.”  The New Jersey shore?  Like in Atlantic City?  Why would anyone go to the beach in New Jersey?(Yes, I was ridiculously ignorant about where millions of people on the East Coast go to the beach.)

When I first met David’s parents, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they talked lovingly of their home on the shore, telling me I would have to come visit there the next summer.  Which I did and realized for the first time that the New Jersey coast is a long series of barrier islands with beautiful beaches and long bays with wide sweeps of marshland and creeks behind the islands.

David and I are here for a week, along with our kids, in the house his parents bought in the 1960’s.  It’s not fancy, but it’s on the bay side of the island that’s divided between Avalon and Stone Harbor and sits right on the water.  From the deck you look out across “the basin,” an inlet of water from the bay, the bay itself, and then the marshes, with the mainland in the distance.

My first summer here I sat with Betty, David’s mother, one afternoon when the rest of the visiting family was out doing errands or at the beach, three blocks across the island on the ocean side.

“Oh, forget about time,” Betty said that day.  I was talking about an outing from years before, trying to remember how many years.   “Time is out there and I’m here,” Betty said.  “I’ve given up on being fact actual.”  Betty had been suffering from dementia for years when I met her, but could be amazingly lucid and insightful at times.

I was reading Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry.  “Do you do any reading?” I asked Betty, knowing she didn’t.  She sat in a chair most of the time, going through magazines and catalogues and piles of paper, clipping coupons and flipping pages, over and over.

“Oh yes,” Betty said.  “But I have no book now.”

“Here’s what I’m reading,” I said, and picked up my book.  “Want to hear a poem?”  I read her Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”  She laughed in delight.

“Well isn’t that the perfect poem for here,” she said, and I read the last stanza again, with its lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. 

“The water is language,” Betty said.  “If you don’t watch the water here you miss the whole thing.”

I stopped reading and watched the water.