Thursday, March 29, 2012

Human Animal

I'm in North Dakota at the moment, preparing to give a reading at the University of North Dakota's "Humanimal" writing conference. I've already heard a wonderful talk by Hal Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" (in which I had to answer the question "would you save your dog or a stranger from being hit by a car?" I won't reveal my shameful answer, but let's just say I had company in my moral ambiguity...).

I also heard a wonderful reading by Pam Houston from her latest book, "Contents May Have Shifted", whose very form echoes the title: she wrote the book in a series of 144 small chapters, then spent two years rearranging those chapters to create a progressive story. I felt immediate writerly kinship: I can spend hours, days, years shuffling around small bits until they coalesce into a form I could never have envisioned with my mind alone.

Today I'll be on a panel about "meeting animals on their own terms" (in which, I expect, the only thing I'll have to say is that animals have not yet expressed to me "their terms," have not proferred a contract for me to sign), and I'll give a reading of two dog essays from my latest book of essays, Listening Against the Stone: "Blessing of the Animals" and "Our Daily Toast."

These two essays definitely do NOT meet animals "on their own terms." No, the animals in these essays are wholly behaving on my terms alone, and I don't apologize for that. What made the writing of these essays so enjoyable, in fact, was the way the animal presence enabled me to go into a deeper understanding of my own story. This is what animals do for us, in writing and in life.

Abbe smiling after neck surgery
I chose these essays not only because my dog Abbe is always a crowd-pleaser (in writing and in life), but because I'd also like to preface the reading with a little bit about the writing process.

"Our Daily Toast" started as a letter I wrote to a few friends while on writing retreat at The Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. The Whiteley Center is one of those places where writing happens. It doesn't happen "magically," or even enjoyably, most of the time (see my earlier post about the agony and the ecstasy of writing retreats), but it does happen, whether you think it is or not.

I know I have to have little tricks to keep me accountable when on writing retreat, and this time I'd promised to write a letter a day to my writing buddies.

On this day I'd done no writing at all. Well, I'd done the kind of writing that involves drinking lots of coffee and eating lots of snacks. The kind of writing that eeks out your brain into ugly dribbles on the page. The kind of writing that urges you to go take a walk instead, go into town, shop for clothes online, take a break—but you can't take a break because you haven't done anything yet to take a break from.

So 8:00 rolls around, and I still hadn't written the damn letter. I was grumpy. Mad at myself. I didn't think I'd have anything to say in a letter. But a promise is a promise. So I sat down and pounded out a confession: "Dear Kim: Today for no good reason I ate two slices of cinnamon-raisin toast at 9:30 a.m., a mere two hours since breakfast."  This one line led me on a reverie about my love for toast, and my dog's love for toast (we are enablers in the toast realm, she and I), and then it became about something I didn't know was lurking there beneath the crumbs: a history of love and the small things that bind us to one another.

I wrote the letter quickly, and it turned almost verbatim into the essay "Our Daily Toast."  Which just goes to show: it pays to keep your promises. It pays to have a form (in this case: the letter) to get you onto the page. It pays to have a little dog waiting in the wings, ready to show you something that has been obvious to her all along.

"Blessing of the Animals" was also written at Whiteley, a few years earlier. This time, my friend Lee had accompanied me, and while she worked industrially on her book of poems, I lazed about on the couch in front of the fire, doodling. (You're getting a pretty clear picture of my writing process by now: it involves an awful lot of avoidance and indolence....) Desperate, I turned to my notebook and typed up a small image that had been hiding there: a description of a moment with my then new little puppy, Abbe: "When I sit next to my dog Abbe just before she falls asleep, and I stroke her fine-boned head, she turns just enough so that her nose somehow nuzzles between my wrist and sleeve."

Being a new dog owner, I behaved much as a parent does with a new child, marveling at every little encounter. And I kept telling myself, "you can't write about your dog, no one wants to hear about your dog." But in the writing of that scene, for some reason, this line came out first: "Here's the first thing you should know."

It's a commanding line, with a commanding voice, and it puzzled me. The first thing you should know? Why? What's the second thing, then? and the third? What is it we really need to know?

With this strange voice as my guide, the long essay gradually unfolded, using an extended scene of bringing my dog to the Unitarian church to be blessed, interspersed with scenes from my childhood with animals. What I didn't expect is that this narrative arc would lead me inexorably to my father and the emergency heart surgery he needed to have at the same time I had acquired my dog. The two strands come together in the end, as Abbe knew they would.

Again, the lesson I keep learning in my writing: let the writing itself tell you what you need to know. Turn to it again and again, even when you feel like a total loser (maybe especially then). You never know what kind of voice may emerge. You never know what animals wait there, ready to guide you in the dark.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yin Yoga

First, a note about the future of this blog. As some of you know, I started this blog as part of a class I was teaching this past winter: "Living Writers: Online Writing as Literature." It was both one of the hardest and one of the most delightful classes I've ever taught. The students made blogs ranging from life in the roller derby to living in a "kinship family" to the hilarious reality of being a college student. One student wrote about being a trans lady while another wrote about wanting to be a dinosaur when she grew up. These are just a few of the many blogs I had the pleasure to witness during the last three months.

I started this blog because I'm a firm believer in making yourself go through whatever torture you're inflicting on your students. I had never blogged before (begging the question, "so, um, why are you teaching a class about blogging?" Chalk it up to a moment of unbridled enthusiasm). I knew only that I was increasingly drawn to the writing I was seeing unfold online, and I wanted a reason to participate.

And so I have. And so I've come to love it. I love the discipline of posting three times a week. I love the way a blog post will unfurl in my mind while walking the dog. I love the community that has expanded way beyond my expectations. Thank YOU, dear reader.

Now the class is over, the grades are in (have you ever tried "grading" a blog? It's not something I recommend...), and I'm left with me and my little blog, trying to decide the best way to continue.

What do you think, folks? What are your favorite types of posts? More about writing? about yoga? about dogs? about food? What days do you like to read blogs?

I will probably cut back on my posting to once a week (unless I feel inspired at odd moments). Fridays will most likely win out as posting day, since I'll have Fridays technically "off" from work (if I can ever figure out how to be really "off" from work).

 And with that, the gist of this post: yin yoga.

I felt like I worked harder than I've ever worked before this past quarter. In addition to teaching a new class, I also taught another full writing class, and worked my new job as Director of Graduate Studies. We conducted two job searches, and I had two books to shepherd into being, proposals to write, laundry to do, garbage to take out, etc. etc.

Yesterday, spring break began. Yesterday I took a breath.  And in that breath, I felt vulnerability flood through my body. An ache that makes your heart tweak. An openness that scares you. A trembling in your upper arms. A twinge behind your eyes.

This is what happens in yin yoga. In yin yoga, you hold a pose for a long time, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10. You breathe deep and settle in. You find your edge. You surrender and let the body do its own yoga for a while. The connective tissue stretches. The body unwinds, unravels. Your teacher tells you stories to keep your mind out of it.

And then you slowly come out of the pose. Your limbs remember they are part of you. And a vulnerable ache will often bloom there, right where you opened up.

It passes. You go on to the next pose. But you remember it, deep in your cells. You remember the space that exists there, below the level of bone and flesh. It beguiles and scares you at the same time.

This is the consequence of opening. 

My work often feels like this. As if I've been holding a pose for a long time, pressing myself to the edge without quite being aware of it. It's only when I stop do I realize how deep I've gone. And when I come back to myself, it can be a little scary, as if I don't recognize this self that has returned.

I have to be gentle with myself. Move slowly. Resist the urge to create work in order to avoid this vulnerable space. Just breathe. Look up. Go out on the deck. Walk the dog in this air that is bright, but still cold. Notice. Simply notice that I am back in the world, and say, "Welcome."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday--A Dinner Party

Last night I threw a dinner party. Moroccan Chicken with lemon and green olives. Date/orange couscous. My friend Lee brought Beets with cumin and mint. Lysa brought spinach salad with lemon vinaigrette. Bruce brought "crack pie." Suzanne brought chocolate/stout brownies (in a nod to St. Patties day). Simon and Ed brought their wicked senses of humor. Kristin and Kaveh (the guests of honor) brought their wonderful selves; we were here to celebrate their recent promotion and tenure, an event that had slipped by in the busyness of this quarter. 

We toasted. We ate. We laughed. We ate some more. We laughed some more. We lingered at the table a long time. The conversation took bizarre twists and turns. The circus got brought up a lot, for some reason. So did raisins.

I thought I was too busy to throw a dinner party. A dinner party takes a lot of work. You have to decide on a menu. You have to make a shopping list. You have to shop. You have to clean your bedraggled house. You have to cook. You have to make a last-minute run to the home store for more wine glasses and forks (where DO all the wine glasses and forks go?) You have to open the table wide enough to seat 10. You have to take a shower, make yourself decent (not an easy task at the end of finals week....)

And I loved every minute of it.

It's a simple truth: the things you love best give energy, rather than deplete it. It's certainly one way to know when you're on the right path.

Another thing: NEVER pass up an opportunity to celebrate. 

And eat as much Date/orange couscous as possible:

Boil 2 cups of water, with 1 Tblsp. oil, 2 Tblsp. fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a bunch of grated orange zest. Chop a handful of dates and throw them in there too.
Pour in 1.5 cups dry couscous (I used Trader Joe's whole wheat couscous.) Add a palmful of salt.
Give a good stir, then take off the heat and let steep, covered, for about 10 minutes. 
Take the lid off the pot and smell the orange essence. Fluff up the couscous with a large fork. Transfer to a pretty serving dish. Garnish with twists of orange.
(I ate the leftovers for breakfast today with yogurt and maple syrup. And I just had some for a snack just now, with yogurt and almonds. It's a magical never-ending pot of goodness....)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Practice Thursday--The Yoga of Hot Tubs

Oh lord, I'm buying a hot tub.

I finally knew I would get myself a hot tub after my trip to Palm Springs in December. As many of you know, I used to live at a hot springs resort in Northern California, and ever since I've been a hot springs hound. I never feel more relaxed, more healed, more at peace, more myself than when I'm outside, neck deep in hot water.

So I came home and I said to myself: "Self, why have you denied yourself a hot tub all these years?" and Self replied: "Because you haven't let me."

So I'm gonna let me. I'm gonna let me have the one large, expensive item that I think will change my life. Even while I know it really won't.

The above picture is NOT my hot tub, though I dearly would love it to be. No, my hot tub will be much more pedestrian—a good ol' Sundance Burlington 680. It has a lot of bells and whistles. It has many, many adjustable jets. It has lounge seating, and Clear Ray filtering, and LED lights, and all kinds of other specifications that had me dazed minutes after I entered the showroom.

The salesman jabbered on while I got the glazed look that appears whenever someone's trying to sell me something that costs a LOT of money. I started daydreaming about a wooden tub heated by fire, surrounded by a Japanese Bamboo fence, night-flowering jasmine in a glazed pot. I imagined walking barefoot on a stone path at nightfall in only my robe, stepping into the tub and sinking, feeling that elusive ahhhhhh take over my body and mind.

I imagined the night expanding around me, the silence revealing a rustle of wind, a gull still still circling, the trot of my dog coming out to find me. She'd stand guard, sniffing the wind for coyote, deer, and wild rabbits, barking at the errant plastic bags blowing in the wind. The tub would smell of old cedar; the water would trickle in by gravity; it would remain a perfect, quiet 104 degrees. I'd steep in that tub, and feel all my stumbling blocks dissolve....

That's what I imagined anyway, while the salesman kept talking, and I kept nodding, and then found myself writing a check for a LOT of money for a hot tub that in no way resembles my fantasy. And then I had to call the electrician to find out it would cost a LOT of money to even get electricity out to the hot tub site, and that doesn't include trenching, so I have to call another guy, and then there's the matter of fencing for privacy, and so on and so on.

But I know at this point it's all inevitable, and it won't be worth it to fret (my dining room remodel taught me something about the nature of fantasy vs. reality, after all....) It should all happen in a few weeks time, and while my bank account will be bruised, I'll be giggling with anticipation, planning the hot tub's christening. Self will be very happy, I hope, with this gift she so rightly deserves. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Pen and the Bell—almost here!

As many of you know, I've been working on this book with my friend Holly Hughes for over four years. Now, after an incredible collaborative process, The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World is about to emerge into the world! It will be published by Skinner House Books in May 2012.

We just received the cover image Friday. Phew. Waiting to see the cover of a book after one spends so long writing it is always a little nerve-wracking: will the cover really echo the voices inside? Will it draw the reader in? Will it welcome the reader to its pages?

We think it does.

Would you like a little sneak peek? Here's some excerpts from the Preface. Enjoy!

The Pen and The Bell

"A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic—or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can."
    —Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

Denise Levertov’s poem describes a state of mind many of us would love to achieve in our daily lives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel that each day we’re granted an “honor and a task,” and each day to know that we can easily do this work—with pleasure, focus, and joy?

This book is about how to carve out  space for writing in a world crowded with so many distractions. It’s about how many of us long to be “a bell awakened,” and yet how difficult that state can be to achieve in the face of our massive to-do lists. It’s about being able to gain access to our deeper selves in the work-a-day world, and to bring forth this authentic self in our writing.

We spent a year writing letters to one another about the twin subjects of writing and contemplation, about how these processes have manifested and evolved in our own lives.

And the most wonderful thing happened: the letter-writing, for both of us, became a deep and rich practice. The letters took on their own life, showed us details or memories we never would have found otherwise, because the simple words—“Dear Holly”, “Dear Brenda”—became our bells of mindfulness. And we had each other as an audience to these thoughts, a listening ear that helped us settle down.

We came to fully understand that all those interruptions are really life itself, not something apart from that life. Contemplation and writing do not happen only in quiet places, in sanctified rooms. In fact, we need to be in contact with the world, to feel ourselves in dialogue with our ordinary lives, rather than resisting them. If we train ourselves, we’ll see that our writing material, and our contemplative state of mind, can be found anywhere: in the Volkswagen repair shop, at the doctor’s office, in a traffic jam, at PetSmart.


At the moment, as we write this introduction to you, we have been lucky enough to work in a quiet place, where the day begins with the ringing whistle of red-winged blackbirds in the marsh, and ends with Great Horned Owls calling for us to pay attention for just one more minute before the day is done. Here, we really feel ourselves imbued with Levertov’s mantra: I can.

We pulled a book of Levertov’s poems off the shelf at dawn, opened it serendipitously to this message that reminded us why we are here, what our “honor and task” might be for today. Levertov wrote her poem in dialogue with the poet Rilke, and so it seems even more fitting as our opening “bell.” Because through writing the stories that make up this book, inspired and supported by one another, we realized that we are—all of us—truly writing together, in dialogue with one another, even in the midst of stillness and solitude.

We hope that you will find yourself whispering I can, I can, I can when you next sit down to write.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Funny Friday-Cats and Dogs

Sorry, I just needed some cute cats and dogs today (and evidence that we can all get along....)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Practice Thursday--Who's Writing This, Anyway?

No, this is not a confession that my dog, Abbe, has been writing this blog all along, though I'm sure she has plenty to say to all you lovely people. I know she'd be full of gratitude for your interest in her small but significant life. She would say, I really like you, whoever you are. She would say, got anything good to eat? Salmon skin? A bit of bacon? A little crust of toast?

My dog would pant happily at the keyboard, and watch expectantly for your comments—as she thinks you're the most fabulous writer in the world! She might close her eyes for a minute, and roll on her side for a belly rub while waiting.

She wants to be wherever you are. She'll follow you from room to room. She'll stare at you until you think of something good to say.

She'll tell you: yes, the week's been hard. Yes, life's tough sometimes. But look, the full moon just rose on the horizon. It's the biggest moon we've ever seen, and it hangs there—fat and gold—for just a minute before disappearing behind the clouds. Slow down and watch it. Gasp. Let out a howl, because such a moon deserves praise.

And so do you, Abbe says. Praise you. Praise the hand that doles out the treats. Praise the leash that says we'll walk. Praise walking. Praise the water bowl that's always full. Praise the fleece bed and the toy that squeaks. Praise popcorn that falls from the sky.

Here we are, she says, you and I. Isn't it grand?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—"Be a person"

Sorry for the late Sunday post; I've been in Chicago, at the annual Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference. Now there's a test of Mindfulness, if ever there was one: 10,000 writers all in the same hotel, buzzing and bumping and endlessly talking; 15 panels and readings every hour; the Bookfair, with its endless rows of tables chock full of swag to give away, to lure you into their clutches.

I was at one of those tables, dear reader. I wanted people to stop, to look at the magazine I edit, the book I wrote, the blog I write. Hundreds of people walked by with their gazes aimed at chest level, reading name tags, determining who was worth talking to and who was not.

And there were SO MANY panels and discussions about one's presence as an author, about how to promote oneself and keep building your audience, especially online. It seemed like we were talking more about how to market our writing, than about doing the writing itself.

So, the best advice I heard—in a panel on online writing and literature—was simply: "Be a person." The guy who said it, Blake Butler, is the editor of HTML Giant, one of the most popular online aggregation sites out there. He said it in response to a question about networking online, and all the advice we'd been receiving about blogging, twittering, linked-inning, Goodreading, and the rest of it.

He shrugged his shoulders. He said "Just be a person."

Forget all the rest of it. Do what comes naturally. If you read someone's blog and like it, tell them so. As a Person, not a "networker." If you have something to say in your blog, do it As a Person, not as a promotion hound. If you friend someone on Facebook, be a friend—As a Person, not someone padding their database.

It seems so simple. But as I sat there in the grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton—surrounded by people staring at their cell phones or listlessly flipping through the weighty conference schedule—I knew how easily our personhood gets squashed in this life. And yet how easily we can resurrect it, if we're reminded to do so.

So my motto this year is Be a Person. Be a Person first. In my work, my writing, my friendships, my life. And all the rest will follow.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

And the winner is.....

The winner of a free copy of the 2nd Edition of Tell it Slant is......


Congratulations Jack! I'll bring you your signed copy next week.

And thank you to all of you who showed such kindness and enthusiasm for the book.  Yeah!

Happy Birth Days!

Today is my birthday. I love birthdays. I'm not one of those modest types who fails to mention her birthday is coming up, who wants no fuss or bother.

Give me fuss! Give me bother! It's a wonderful chance to celebrate all of us being alive.

And so, for my birthday, I give you a present, my favorite poem by Czeslaw Milosz. May it bring you a little moment of beauty in a busy day:


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.