makes bone broth (downstairs)
of opening his mouth for the nice hot water and pills.
Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I could understand something of the competitor. The Olympian urges his body on toward the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He pursues the unrivaled to best himself. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to hug after beating the brains out of each other? (Right, it is women who make no sense.) Baffling brutes, I’ve thought.
A year or so after my boy had started in Mixed Martial Arts and I too had learned some moves in self-defense, I was strolling past the octagon at the gym when the sparring in there took on a startling light. Suddenly, the irrational violence I’d dismissed made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away in its beauty. So this was the art of war.
I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in some noble cause for the greater good but to test themselves. Fascinated with these creatures of discipline – so many of them who I discovered are really nice guys – I went around the last two months asking fighters of all caliber in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Why do you fight?” But it was the questions under the question that pressed me. Aren’t you afraid? What do you do with that fear? What makes you spurn that bed of ease and climb the path of great resistance? Are you born different from the rest of us? What is the stuff of warriors – are they born or made – and what inner battles are you fighting?
These questions played in my head during a mesmerizing rerun of the epic fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the summer.
A minute and a half into the first round, and blood rains over Shogun’s face. He stays bloody to the end. By the third round, both he and Hendo have drained their reserve. Round Four, they pummel. And Hendo looks at the clock. An eloquent moment: two hundred pounds of muscle and he wonders when he can stop.
The men hang by a thread through the distance, the longest 25 minutes of their lives. It’s not muscle in the last round. Shogun and Hendo find themselves in the mental corner. They have given up their all and for one of them, it won’t be good enough. What follows will ride on mind and will. Shogun gives Hendo a run for his money, but Hendo had done too much damage too fast from the first round not to win in the judges’ eyes. The call remains a technicality for many, fans the world over moved by the warrior spirit of both men.
Soon after, I caught some words from The Korean Zombie on the gym screen, a crash introduction to the relatively new but popular mixed martial artist who earned the moniker from his singular ability to plow through all injuries and blows. Thrilled to his wildest dreams that he was slated to fight UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Chan Jung said, “I’m willing to put everything on the line…I would give my life to be champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I became enthralled. Three years he had chased the chance to take the title from the eight-year undefeated champion. I asked The Zombie in my head: What makes you define years of your life by a moment you hold in your dreams? Where does the confidence even come from, to disagree with the masses that your opponent is superior?
Aldo: “I don’t even see a chance of losing.”
Jung: “I push my opponent to his breaking point.”
I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent took the time to translate the interview and afford me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I’ve spoken with, ended up in martial arts after being bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoes the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over, the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The goal is to free themselves from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym says he competes to face his fear of vulnerability and stay ahead of his insecurities.
Former UFC champion Vitor Belfort said it simply on TV: “Nothing can distract.” The Korean Zombie doesn’t just dream. He labors in the vanguard of those who sweat, breathe, beat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. All those months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial! Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite in his observation that we are far too easily pleased, his commentary captures the human spirit. We worship comfort, especially as postmoderners. I am blown away by the single-minded who take no excuses for themselves, repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard. In this case, fighters put themselves at a place that exposes what they’ve got, what they’ve worked for: they ran the extra mile or they didn’t. The cage door closes and you have two guys hell bent on winning. No one trains to lose. They force each other to their best. The contenders risk it all before a watching world. And the months of toil can all go down in seconds. It hit me (pun intended) that this death grip on commitment resonates with me for the crazy work ethic Koreans have branded themselves by.
I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I was seeking in the interviews. The men told me, “I fight because it’s what I love. What I’m good at. The thrill of victory, the arm going up.” But why do you have to punch someone in the face to feel so good?
If man ever did evolve he stopped over 2,000 years ago. I realized MMA is not so new. I am watching the Spartan warrior and the Roman gladiator in their most primal fight for self-preservation. History is battle, the fiercest of physical arguments over land and power. My son has been learning, “Assyria falls to Babylon, Babylon to Persia, Persia falls to Alexander the Great.” The Conquerer has been redefining boundaries – of space and within himself – since ancient times and on he goes. Man’s quest for greatness.
LIVING THE DREAM
The current of the past carries these fighters on to their future. Competitor Phillip Brown is not only chasing his dream but living it. He stays present so that the training is not only a movement toward possibility but joy: “You wake up and realize it’s already tomorrow. You feel really alive. It’s a presence. All your hard work has paid off. All those minutes on the bag, all those tap-outs in practice. Tap-out means I need to get better. Martial arts is the art of bettering oneself. When that cage door shuts, I’m exactly where I wanna be: win, lose, or draw.” How many of us know exactly where we want to be?
THE ROAD AHEAD
Part of my fascination with these contenders stems from the mystery of the Other. They are talented with their body as I can never hope to be. After a year’s sorry attempt in Self-Defense, I discovered I have as much survival instinct as I do coordination. But I’m drawn to the sport for the resonance; I fill with hope and pride in people who seek excellence in their craft, partly for this very pursuit in the roles I have played as mother and as writer. Whether or not I have succeeded remains a different matter. But what I’ve asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son to free him – to borrow from Gloria Vanderbilt – to follow his bliss? How do I encourage him to refuse distractions from his purpose? How to reconcile the wisdom of balance with the virtues I prize: stamina, discipline, passion? You lose, sometimes excise, a part of yourself for the greater gain on the hot trail of dreams.
“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), American minister and educator
Enjoy the Wayfarer in MMA action here – most notably not in her element.
“He told of how the trees had grown in all sorts of conditions, endured lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations. [The boat builder] said the wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, but it also taught us about the reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about things larger and greater than ourselves.” Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat
Anticipation trails the greeting: “Happy new year!” The newness in the turn of the calendar somehow holds out hope of a fresh happiness, a better year. But I remain grateful to be able to maintain the status quo of a mom on duty, keeping up with the home lessons and activities, churning out the chow, running the house. Put my face on this year? Maybe! The lipstick box awaits, now organized. Host company?? I pulled off Christmas. WRITE? Perhaps I ask too much. Because I have learned to be satisfied with very little, even through the homesickness for my blog. I’ve shown up here drenched, not in the exhilarated sweat of the marathon victor, but in the swells of a twelve-month winter that have finally cast me out on shore. It’s been a year I would not repeat for any amount of money and it is with eagerness I accept the well-wishings of a happy 2017. Except that though we don’t like to think about unexpected hardships, they come. In fact, they don’t take holidays, and have left me with friends and family whose Christmas season remains an anniversary of dear losses. So maybe the relief of a tabula rasa is a luxury not within our rights. Maybe we can at best just hope to survive.
That is what I got out of the book The Martian, Watney’s desperate fight to stay alive an amplified contemplation of the symphonic battle between the harbingers of death and impulse of life we call the human condition. The farmer’s labor is a prayer, dependent on forces he attempts to harness but cannot control. And there is the financier, the urban version of this struggle, in his relationship with market conditions. Life is conflict – in the community, family, ourselves.
“A protagonist is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition he or she faces,” Pulitzer journalist Jack Hart quotes a writer in Storycraft. Isn’t that life? Even trees testify to the seasons they have weathered, confess their ordeal and age in their rings and core. “He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in the wood. He said those separate fibers, knitted together in the wood, gave cedar its ability to bounce back and resume its shape or take on a new one. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, Pocock said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood.” DJB, The Boys in the Boat. There is a strength adversity builds that is of a different order than the brawn of success. It comes from just holding on and being able to look another day of it in the face. You are not capable, pretty, or smart. You just try to keep standing. Day after day.
“I continued to go [to the nursing home], and I struggled to find meaning in their bleak existence. What finally helped was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Part of my problem with suffering is that I’m surprised by it. Why can’t it all go my way?? Well, if it won’t always be California sunshine, can I at least have my greenhouse? You have been reminded. Expect a hard year, and happiness will follow somewhere in that.
“Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. The population is strong and growing. That’s pretty impressive, when you consider it was exposed to near-vacuum and subarctic temperatures for over twenty-four hours. With hundreds of millions of bacteria, it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.” The Martian
What is it about the year-end? Makes us face our fears and disappointments, and count our hopes again like pieces of treasure in the palm? The seasons herald change as they fall into one another but the calendar shows us we don’t cycle in place. We wheel forward. Birthdays, anniversaries, “three years since” are private touchstones across memory and longing and the new year, a giant communal marker of time, leaves no one unaffected. The Eve is a live wire between the past and future and with the turn of the year, we cross a mental threshold.
For some of us it’s simple math, only so many grains of sand left in the hourglass. We seek to balance the equation, weigh our dreams against the run of time. But it’s more than a race with the clock. No matter our age or station or story, the height of the new year holds out a second chance. We hope for better, of our life and of our self, because to be human means to grow. In character, strength, achievement there is room for more and we seize fresh opportunity. So we turn our feet toward our dreams, reset our compass to the hope of this winter sun.
I don’t remember my mother ever having the cold or flu. She must’ve had her share, especially in the sharp New York winter. She remains healthy in my memory because she never took a day off, never took a nap, never complained. Not even when the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared into her finger. Between the waitressing years in New York, Mom sewed for the giant garment industry that Latino and Asian immigrants pinned their hopes on in the 70s and 80s. The heaps of cut fabric she brought home in the metal shopping cart, they literally called homework. It enabled her to raise her kids and stay involved in my early schooling. Mom did everything fast. She would feed polyester rectangles through the machine and recruit me and my little brother to flip them into shirt collars. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. She ate a lot of dust.
The older I grow, the smaller I feel in the shadow of my mother’s sacrificial silence. I grew up exasperated with Mom, but her threshold of patience in marriage and motherhood was a lot higher than mine. I am not only a verbal woman, I am a vocal wife. Thanks in part to the freedom of speech this beloved Land of the Free so fiercely protects, the culture of rights I am privileged to claim citizenship in. Thanks in part to a man who works to give me all I need and ask for. And most absolutely thanks to a nature that still begs tempering. I’ve been able to trace my defensive offense to the years of feeling my needs were not met. Many things in the home needed my care, including my parents, at times. So the anger is really fear. As helpful as this insight has been, it’s no ticket out of jail. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.
I don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me. How dare I draw myself up to her small frame in these comfortable shoes that cost more than what she ever spent on her own tired feet? It wasn’t just waitressing that her legs ached from. She stood hours in the kitchen over the traditional side dishes that every meal called for. Did you know Korean food is misogynistic? When I dug up this picture of Mom, I was surprised at the poor quality of the photo. It had stuck in my head as a beautiful shot, one of my favorite of hers, because it shows her radiant slaving away in a hole with no ventilation in a tiny apartment. And then my grandmothers had it even harder. No appliances to keep up with the laundry for a family of eight or nine. My mother’s father passed away when Mom was three, leaving Grandma to flee on foot with six children when the communist North invaded Seoul three years later. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother, three years old, died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road and this and the rest my grandmother endured with silent heartache and grace. If unassuming, unreserved sacrifice is the measure of greatness, surely greatness diminishes with each generation. Or is it just me? I am probably the weakest link in my line. No, I don’t believe all the women before me were virtuous, and I know of many among Mom’s generation who even abandoned their own. I’m talking of the times and culture. Though I may shoulder my hearty share of struggles, my days aren’t heavy with the desperation I sensed in Mom when I was a child. The small matter of war aside, she and the women before her had to push through resistance just to procure the basics. Korea was poorer then, and immigrant life tougher than the country that shut no door on me as I was growing up. Living seemed to have required more fortitude. There are things I do better than Mom did. Like many of us, I determined to be a different parent. But my savvy turns out to be simply a matter of knowledge and opportunity – from the education my mother paid for with her very self. I had set out to do better but I now see that every success of mine is the dream she chased.
Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. A friend of mine was with us and we peeped our head into some restaurants, more like run-down bars, for a new shoe. We left the row of shops and stood on a threshold under the eaves, facing the pavement. I cradled you.
I would carry you in the rain.
You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulling me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.
Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?
The other day you took car tracks bereft of car and remote, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when that plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.
I forget why I keep you close, teach you at home. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.
We walk around self-absorbed.
He wasn’t very responsive over lunch. What’s gotten into him?
I’ve been so sick. I expected her to show more concern. How insensitive.
She’s kept away from my family and made me feel judged. How rude.
I won’t say what I really feel because he would think less of me.
We need to get over our self.
Our life is all about us, but their lives are not. Remember, as soon as we step outside and start interfacing with others, we have two people talking about the same thing from his own perspective, experiences, biases. Let’s look at the way this autobiographical listening plays out when we feel slighted or offended.
He just mumbled during lunch? Maybe he had a headache. Or a fight with his wife. More than one blogger who has emailed me has wondered why I didn’t get back to them right away. If they knew what I juggle, and the challenges I don’t write about (Wayfarer’s voice climbing)! I assure you I do more than my best to get back to readers on email and their site. And I suggest you don’t follow me through the filter of expectations based on the number of likes you leave me. I attribute part of my growth to the loyalty I show my awesome readers, but on weeks like these I just can’t keep up. I’m sorry some of you will fall through the cracks. If you think I’m talking right at you, well, how’s that for self-consciousness – though my head’s too full to be seeing names at the moment. One other thing. If you haven’t noticed, I boast an extraordinarily intelligent readership. Yours isn’t the only blog I want to visit.
Wish I tolerated alcohol. I’ll be nice again, next post.
Back to our All About Me list. Maybe your illness is too much for her because it replays Mom’s battle with cancer. Or she’d wanted to show more support but has been sick herself. What if some bad news had come her way? Think about the things that get a rise out of you or cause you to withdraw. These triggers tap buried wounds, insecurity, or pride which like to feed one another. Though I’ve attracted plenty of them over the years, I don’t do very well around needy people, those with fragile egos. Though my childhood could’ve been a lot happier, I was well grounded in parental affirmation. I need to be more compassionate toward those whose wounds from childhood still drive them to behave in ways that exasperate me.
A few years ago, someone returned my kindness with a persistent cold shoulder. My husband saw that she felt she didn’t measure up to me. She later confessed her sense of inadequacy under my shadow. I was baffled. Who ever said she had to mother like me? We are mothers in our own way, give our child what no one else can. She was 35 and still hadn’t picked a lane on who she was. Every time we talked things out the drawn-out wrestling match found me wiping the emotional vomit of her past off my face. My last words to her were one of peace and genuine well-wishing but for the sake of my health I had to cut off ties. There is probably a little delusionary confidence to this but I usually don’t take things personally. When this woman looked at me, it was not through a magnifying lens but a movie screen where I was just one character among thousands traipsing across the screen – many from her past. And the star of the film was not me, but her grand self.
To recognize we’re part of a bigger drama doesn’t justify our wrong. You well may have offended Jenny. But even though you really owe an apology, her response will likely still trace back to dormant issues – because Terry next to her would’ve laughed off your quip. In issues that spring from abandonment or abuse, the debt remains greater than perpetrator or victim usually can handle. But understanding that our parents or lover acted out of the dysfunction and poor parenting he, she inherited releases the steam valve so we don’t keep cooking in our anger. I’m not talking about exonerating those who commit heinous crimes.
Wrapping up our angst-ridden list. What about what people think of you? Oh, you swear they will think funny of you for what you did or wore? You really have to keep in good standing with John? Do you think your coworkers will remember your project three years from now? Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less (C.S. Lewis). And trust me. You are on people’s minds a lot less than you think you are. Know why?
They’re busy worrying about what others think of them.
My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article on how praising kids for being smart often backfires, straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University also shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. Some key points on the inverse power of praise:
A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenge.
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.
In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids copped out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. A marked difference in response lay between the groups. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts sunk into obvious misery. Of course they took their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control…Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation had rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. While I was praised for being smart even as a baby, I also suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember crying, devastated, in the face of her withering disappointment for the 98% on a test. Today, she has nothing but remorse for the years she faked pride for dissatisfaction to push me to my utmost.
Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure – the devil on my shoulder – goaded me with its pitchfork to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before every piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze both in temperature and mobility. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school. I rejected the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.” I had set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them.
To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly, after teaching in the public schools, I consulted a Harvard professor for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture, and sat in on her doctoral class. I was 27 when I took part in that fun discussion, just before deciding on life under California’s sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the venerable institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of the last principal I worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? It seems what had locked me in the first place was likely the praise over my innate ability that had attended my youth. But when trepidation gives way to boldness, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. The article describes how that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was found to have no clothes on.
From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’
I groaned to be told in graduate school and teacher professional training sessions to shower the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation all over my students. How a society, let alone a marriage, can expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else confounds me. (How telling that the sun does not orbit the earth.) I absolutely believe in the inherent worth of every individual, and that no child should feel unloved or unworthy – because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now will differ vastly in their response to this statement of faith but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their self-esteem on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”
The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a chemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers produced improved math scores from low-achieving math students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain is a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.
Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts across the subjects of science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some in the form of long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that do make for effective encouragement: whether it’s the number of times a hockey player checked his opponent or improved concentration on a task; sincere, specific feedback that provides repeatable strategies which move one forward profitably. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.
We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. In light of the research, I find my own response to kudos on the blog this year interestingly apt: I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard. After decades of reading and writing, I only now feel like a writer. Despite the modest publishings, it’s taken me 40 years to pen my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s no timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as a writer – standards higher than ever.
It saddens me greatly that I have only one life in which to read and write. All those books I will not have opened, the ignorance I will take with me to my final bed. And of course, the books I will have left unwritten. And yet, I’ve been given, this year, pages to add to the annals of community, and to culture and art at large.
You know how writers start a blog in the dubious hope of being discovered out here (by a publisher)? Well, one found me. I responded to the encouragement to submit, and the narrative The Measure of a Woman made its way into the 2018 New York’s Emerging Writers anthology. I put in under New York for the relevance to my mother’s early immigrant years there. The editors will offer a solo book deal to the author who draws the best reader feedback, so imagine how much I will appreciate anyone who takes a moment to put up a good word for me on that Amazon page. You can take to the bank this public assurance that I will remember you when I’m rich and famous, ’til I wake from that dream. Here are examples of comments that their readers have dropped on a previous series.
In the summer, I then reached out to WestCoast Magazines, a publication that serves the affluent families and businesses in this part of Southern California. After reading my work, the CEO gave me the run of her upcoming feature, each hard print issue drawing 100,000 views. Don’t bother tapping in if you’re not within distance, but I will say the article explains the distinctives of public, private, charter, and home schools to help families navigate choices and to build bridges across the school sectors. Unwittingly, I made some important contacts in the research, and now am on board with a large reputable school district to teach its students poetry and its teachers how to write. For starters, I was asked to share some poems at the district poetry showcase last week, where my husband and son also got to do a steel drum duet. (Yes, that is really my husband out of costume.) A few things have evolved for me simultaneously in all this.
Camera-shy (more like vehemently averse), I had always preferred to be read, not seen. And I honor the written poem because the way it looks on the page matters to me. Add to this the jarring thought that in performing a poem, I myself visually become part of the piece. Just as I had talked myself into going for it, I learned of a sudden passing of someone I had known in high school. Her lights went out after 45 brief years, in a brain aneurysm. She was my age. In the face of the sure limit on my own time, I decided to forge ahead into the world of Spoken Word. Perhaps it’s as simple as middle-age bungee jumping. But I want to create in new ways, while I can. It turns out that some of my posts – prose and poetry – work well in speech. And so in an earnest defense against dementia and related demise of brain cells, I have been memorizing my work, and performed – not recited – it at the showcase last week. It was an electric evening with a great turnout. Entering my zone while connecting with the audience was an amazing experience that pushed me beyond the comfortable ride of rolling out words in print.
Connecting with readers virtually is a special privilege, but engaging an audience face to face – offering my physical and emotional self – is a challenge, thrill, and power all its own. Blogging has taught me to write not like I’m educated but like I’m human, to step closer to the reader. Performing literally brings me in front of people to ask them to let me in. Perhaps a student of color, along the way, will find her own voice from watching the way I modulate and present mine. Of course I questioned whether I was good enough, but was invited back for a literacy conference next month and a poetry festival in March. Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge, and I think this is so because knowledge brings us to just the knowing, but imagination allows us to keep discovering, as the arts enable us to do – not with the fastidiousness of a scientist or scholar, but in wonder. The turn in my journey isn’t only about fuller living and the evolution of an artist but also a modeling for my son. I want to help nurture his own proficiency in presentation and performance because if you can look a crowd in the eye and tell a story or share your conviction, you can influence a great many people in today’s world. DIY YouTubes and the variants of TED talks that are shaping our culture say it all. I applied and was accepted as a speaker at an annual state homeschool conference a few months ago. It both empowered and concerned me to see the homeschooling parents take to my workshop like water. They were so grateful to be led them through the precepts on writing I have shared in past posts, the response made me want to go to the public school teachers. Writers who teach are busy with aspiring writers at conferences and special programs. They are not in the schools. I am excited to be guiding teachers so they can build their own skill set along with their students’.
I laugh some moments, marveling that I can make up stuff and convince people to buy my wares. But I embrace the deeper lesson that opportunity isn’t so much something that shows up, as something to create. Don’t wait for your life. The doors I tried this year have swung open, but I first had to imagine and believe people would make space for me, should make space for me, and then knock. Only one life, friends. To dream, think, pursue, make, and because we have not only hands and brain, but also spirit, to do it in community. You bet I had the little Naysayer on my shoulder to deal with. But you’re too old to be doing Spoken Word. Talk to me when Sarah Jones stops doing whatever strikes her fancy on that stage. Your material isn’t angry enough, hip enough. As long as I’m asked back, I will stake my place among the ten thousand voices of poetry. There are better writers. Always. But they didn’t call the district superintendent. It’s one thing for finances, health, or death to get the better of me, but I will not live beneath my ability out of self-scripted fear. Do my job where I am? I am letting life and joy follow where I go.
Mrs: How did you get me to marry you again?
Mr: I’m getting a dog when Tennyson goes to college.
Mrs: NO. It’s me or the dog.
Mr: (No comment)
Took over 10 years, friends, but I finally did it. Decoded Malespeak:
You look pretty, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
Mmm. You smell nice, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
That’s a nice outfit, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
What a great dish, honey. (I want to have sex with you.)
Mr: Here, let me take a picture of you.
Mrs: No. I’m chunk-a–munk.
Mr: Oh, no you’re not. I want a photo for when you die.
Mom: Remember it takes a year for the Earth to revolve around the Sun?
Boy: So that means the Earth’s revolved around it ten times since I was born?
Mom: Yes. As I have around you these ten years.
Mrs: It kills me that one day he will grow up and know heartache, that he’ll suffer at the hands of a girl. Pause. Women are powerful.
Mr: Yeah. It sucks. They take your HEART, they take your MONEY, your self-ESTEEM. They take EvErything.
[Speaking of postpartum depression]
Mrs: Actually, I haven’t been depressed since I met you. Pause. I’ve been pissed off like hell, but not depressed.
Mr: You’ve been too pissed to be depressed, ha ha ha.
On her last birthday:
*Taking wife’s hand, sentimental* Oh honey, when you were born, the angels…
the angels…laughed. Detour. They laughed…at me.
9 Years Old, bedtime:
Boy: Can you see me?
Boy: Even in the dark?
Mom: Always. Even in the dark.
Te amo tambien, México.
Mexicano, hermano, ya eres Coreano.
Pero no más tequila, por favor. Tacos Coreanos, bueno.
Way to go, South Korea!
I would rather be read than seen, but delivering my poem on that stage to an audience serious about art and beauty was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I have watched my favorite poets online present from their book at readings the way I’ve appreciated figure-skating on the Olympics channel. Very cool and fat chance that’ll ever be me. But there I stood – while part of a collection – sharing my words out of a book. I was just a blade of grass, but had left the desert.
Beautiful cover, isn’t it? The SDPA is out on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in all the San Diego public and university libraries in California. The 13th edition contains poetry from emerging and established artists in the region along with the international poetry contest winners. Apparently, the honorees from the competition comprised 1/9 of the submissions. We had to have made the final lists of two judges. To be able to read my work among distinguished guests including the Poet Laureate of San Diego, and receive the feedback I did were no small affirmations. I took the gift as a hard-won treat in wrapping up a school year that had revolved around my son.
People back home were so happy for me. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere – not I the mother or educator, but the writer who no longer remembered what she looked like apart from the mirror. And then life spun its crazy turns.
I refrain from the details, partly to keep the bleeding in check. But long sad story short, I found myself misrepresented sorely in public and in the eyes of a person in authority by someone I had liked and trusted. The roughest of the ride behind me, I stand, shaken but more secure. I was able to move away from the anxious indignation, so bound up in the ego, to the stuff of real consequence, trust in God’s redemptive plans. I am a note in His symphony – a reminder both humbling and exalting. There is much more to my life than…me, and what people think.
The self-help gurus tell me I can be anything, do anything, and success is to be found in strength. In the quietest, deepest places, I know real growth comes by loss. If I am to offer up my God anything, I need to have something to give up. What can I surrender when the sun smiles upon me, when readers throw bouquets of praise, when my child is winning awards? Without struggle, there is no conquering.
I wish I had the words and muscle to help bear your load. You have borne your distresses with such amazing grace. Caring for the elderly becomes much like the labor over young children and you are pressed on all fronts with little margin to tend to your own needs.
Ariel Levy, staff writer at The New Yorker, recounts in her memoir her traumatic miscarriage out in Mongolia at five months. She speaks of grief, loss, growing up, thinking she had been getting somewhere with her career, love, playing house, motherhood, when it all came crashing on her head and she realized she’d just been driving around. She longs for her lost child in the crushed dream of motherhood, and confesses the fear of being without a companion. I thought of you but also of us all.
She quotes a famed writer, a woman in her ritzy apartment late in life who, when asked about her unfulfilled desire for children, answered simply that everybody cannot have everything. Ariel came to see – slowly – that we can have some things. I would add that every gift, every station in life, comes with a dark side we don’t think too much about in eyeing what we don’t have. This side of heaven, as you know, life is a burden, the burden of our humanity. T’s hobble from a judo injury has tapered to a limp. But I am reminded that we all limp. And joy can be found in all things.
Life here has been too full. I don’t have hands enough for all that needs doing, putting one fire out after another. Preoccupied as I had been with T, it took 36 hours for me to look down and understand that my thumb was (very) mad at me and was shouting up through my shoulder. I had forgotten the freak wrench off the joint after that first scream. In the resentment at being stretched like taffy, at being kept from the writing in life’s madness and the home school, it hit me last night that I have one shot at this. No matter how hard I try in the future, I will not be able to do this day over with T, resurrect his childhood and do motherhood more patiently and sweetly. I will not be able to care for him as I would want to. In a blink these years evaporated, leaving me with the freedom I gasp for some days and the house quiet. What lessons in character that he has learned from me (by watching) will he take into the world, into his own life and family? Faced, in the past, with the choice of alter egos for a life I could relive, I would’ve – so satisfied with my person – chosen my present self. Now, I would jump at the chance to be anyone else. Someone better at happiness, someone who knows worrying saves no one. In all that selflessness of yours, be selfish with the joy, JK. I don’t envy you your sorrows but no need to look this way through frosted windows.
Dear God, yes, I’ll take Combo #4. The family free of injuries (could we throw in my parents?), obedient child, antiaging powers, and that book deal we’ve talked about. But on the days that a smile is a workout, I’ll take it à la carte, the grace just to get through and to know You’ve got this.
Congratulations: Your poem, Age, has earned Honorable Mention
in the 2017 Steve Kowit International Poetry Contest.
Your poem will be published in the next edition of the San Diego
Poetry Annual, due out on March 1, 2018. A PDF of the annual
will be available for free reading and downloading in February 2018
on our website: http://www.sandiegopoetryannual.com.
You are invited to attend the awards ceremony to read your poem
at the Neil Morgan Auditorium on Saturday, April 21, 2018. If
you can attend, you’ll be paid a small honorarium ($50). If you
cannot attend, a certificate of achievement will be mailed to you.
Again, congratulations. Your support for the legacy of Steve Kowit
helps us donate of copies of the SDPA to every public and university
library system in our region, making the annual part of their
Most of all, thank you for allowing us to publish your work.
William Harry Harding
for The Judges
San Diego Entertainment & Arts Guild
It was an introductory class in the marketing of websites under a company I was with in 2003. Relatively new to Southern California, I drove beyond the comfort zone of my city past the county line to train under the specialist. Tall and thin, the man looked to be in his 30s and welcomed his guests as we signed in at the foyer. About twenty of us filled his living room. His last name was Thompson.
After the session, I had some questions. Almost everyone had left and his wife came downstairs. I remember being a little surprised at the sight of the Taiwanese woman, in part for her short, compact frame, in part for the accent, as they somehow didn’t add up to someone I’d pictured for the spouse. One or two other women mingled but I don’t recall at what point they left. The three of us talked in the kitchen, and while Thompson shared a bit about his life and their trip to Taiwan some years before, his wife reached for some duck eggs. He paused to grimace and wrinkle his nose, and tease her for her fondness for the eggs. I thought it rude of him, in front of company, no less. One felt no love lost between them as she rolled her eyes and shuffled back upstairs with her meal. And she obviously couldn’t care less about leaving him alone with a woman. He wanted to show me some artwork of his. When I obliged, he sidled up to me on the island, leaning in close so that we touched as he turned the pages of what looked like a small album. He was talented, from the looks of the female breast sketched so meticulously. I made myself scarce.
Since he was the only website trainer within distance, I had to email him the technical questions I still had so I could do the work I paid to trained for. He said he would have to show me on my computer – said in my home – for certain reasons, in the evening. Had I given the impression that I was stupid? Just what did he think I would do with him – or worse, what did he hope, without consent, to do to me? Distraught, I shared the email with a male friend. Since Thompson was a private contractor, not an employee at the company, he wasn’t under official supervision and therefore not accountable to authority in any strict, legal sense. While it remained within my rights to pursue this particular line of work, it fell to me to pass it over if I wished to preserve my sense of safety. As I searched my inbox for the hair-raising email to share with you, I slowly remembered wishing to rid myself of his greasy handprints and deleting it. Wanting every bit of him out from under my skin, I also tossed the closing thread in which I’d told him how uncomfortable he made me and in which he dissembled like a snake, claiming no unworthy intentions.
So of course I am gratified to watch the Harvey Weinsteins earn their due. It’s been said of Weinstein that it wasn’t about sex but power. I say, more pointedly, sexual harassment and abuse are about boundaries and how one feels entitled to help oneself to someone’s space. How one is deaf to all words (No) and feelings but one’s own. Does the Holocaust ring a bell? Of course the face of it, the expression of the narcissistic compulsion, is different. But at root, any kind of blind, forceful imposition is like another. What you have is basic disregard for human dignity.
I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.
My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels. ~ Molly Ringwald, The New Yorker
Unfortunately, Molly, in a business where your physical features are your résumé, you will always have the Weinsteins who can’t keep themselves from the cookie jar.
So why are women in particular prone to this dishonor? At a most basic level, we are obviously physically more vulnerable than the men. Please, I have met my share of UFC women with more brawn than the guys but clearly they don’t outnumber the male race on any given day. The relative weakness of women is not a value judgment but a part of the attraction, no? I imagine if I had the mass of the Hulk, I wouldn’t have had to worry about Thompson. The feminist outrage against sexual harassment and abuse is in itself a confirmation of our vulnerability even as we claim our power. And so trailing the storm over women’s rights as it rounds the corner into the world of art where LGBT champions are staking their place, I find myself wondering if we are about to topple 5000 years of appreciation for the female form along with the Weinsteins. Rightly so, the feminist dam has burst in the world of the visual, performance, and written arts over the century, for an open mic should allow for all voices. But what of poetry today that embraces homemaking or the woman’s body that is unarguably a vessel for receiving (a man)? Are these – our physical design – regressive notions? Is the pleasure we afford men an archaic vice in public discourse? In a poem about myself as wife and mother, I’ve said:
I would become
food, grass, lake, playground
Are such pictures no longer politically correct? Yes, women have lain as doormats in their homes for thousands of years but many have done so willingly, offering themselves as gifts to their family. In the war cry for our rights, women may forget our license to give ourselves up for the taking. Where there is love, that is a power and beauty. Will we someday ban Pride and Prejudice in the schools? After all, it perpetuates skewed, patriarchal ideals of femininity. In all the sophistication of hard-won feminist ideals, I fear we will lose sight of the timeless discussion on the vulnerabilities and liabilities of womanhood and gender.
Remember, an open mic allows for all voices.