Writing: A Hermit’s Journey

If my life in books counted off the page, I could boast quite a social life. My diverse bibliodiet of fiction and fact includes Pulitzers I study, tracing the contours of the words for clues to their savoir-faire. Best thing is when I fall in, pestled upon a page of genius. I feel ridiculous. Don’t try to fool me into thinking it’s doable. High art is not five feet three. Art at its best shows me the by-ways behind the crags. It cuts and bruises. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr shares some questions she asks to “help students diagnose their own blind spots” ~

1. What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages.
2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are?

[Her answers]
1. My friends usually like me because I’m tenderhearted, blunt, salty, and curious. I’m super loyal, and I laugh loud.
2. People don’t like me because I’m emotionally intense and often cross boundaries….Small talk at parties bores me senseless…I’m a little bit of a misanthrope. I cancel lunch dates because I’m working.

She believes we are to bring to the page the best and worst of ourself, that is, our full and authentic self. Yes, I think you see me in clear color and dimensions, in fact more than the people in my life, at least those outside my family, do. One tempers into social roles and expectations, especially by middle age. These socks have to match. I also feel muted in the rituals we call socializing, not able to talk books or art in the circles that motherhood have circumscribed for me when I’m happier in company with the immortal dead and fellow hermits in the cave of their mind. When the tea party is over, I invite a wordsmith over for some wine – and days I need it, the scotch. Ah, the way good prose jolts, even in its beautiful ache. I want to drive under the influence – and once I’ve stepped out into fresh air, too start climbing.

 

Burial

It was a summer sun and autumn wind. He felt both awkward and snug in the sweater as the heat bore through and the air blew in tidal breaths about him. He couldn’t help look up as he made his way down the gully using his spade for a walking stick. The sky, a wash of azure, held out a gorgeous cleanness – a tableau vivant of redemption after the fierce rain.

Reminding himself to breathe with the wind softening above, he followed the redolent trail of conifer to a line of trees struck by sun. Right there, by the rock. That’s where he’d dig. The clods eventually gave way because they had to. All those years: longing and defeat marked a hundred thousand steps that had made a life, and he hadn’t lived. The dirt crumbled under the work of sure hands. When he made his way back out to the deepening sunlight and noise, will people know that his heart had stopped, that in death he had prevailed over beguiling hope? No. They will just believe his depthless smile. The hollow was now big enough. Calloused palms smoothed the bottom and bending, like a father over the cradle, he buried his dreams.

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work and to work not to live. As the obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

To this day she lives with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sank into depression.

Her response back then intrigued me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining, my life before and after this season a hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, life without money struggles a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions would come my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away from Pennsylvania to end up tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out for the interview as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me about the suit she couldn’t resist picking up outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I rushed over to her. She had spotted it in an expensive trash pile after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class echelon. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp, she never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped, or paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time searching for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of work and life options that had opened for her. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was naked, stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article that explains 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 shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. She offers insights 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 challenges.

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. The groups exhibited a marked difference in response. 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 deflated, taking their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can controlEmphasizing 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 in diapers, 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, asking for her forgiveness, in the face of her withering disappointment over the 98% on a test I’d brought home. It was decades later that she remorsefully revealed she’d feigned 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 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, turning cold and stiff. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school, rejecting 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. Deep inside, I feared being exposed as a fraud, of not meeting the expectations I wore.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly: at 27, I visited Harvard for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture. I enjoyed meeting with a professor and sitting in on her class, although in the end, I left the the east coast for the California sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the storied institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of a principal I’d worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? When trepidation gives way, 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. What had locked me in the first place was not low self-esteem but the praise over my innate ability that had followed me in my youth. Besides, that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, has been 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 had little patience for  the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation I was told in graduate school to shower my students. How can a society, let alone marriages, expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above all else? (The sun does not orbit the earth.) We all should know our inherent worth, and 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 may see it differently, but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their sense of worth 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 biochemical 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 improved math scores in low-achieving students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain works like a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.

The Little Man

The Little Man

Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts in science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some, 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 that 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 provides effective encouragement : sincere, specific feedback with repeatable strategies that moves the child forward. But I find it takes some conscious reprogramming on my end to keep from juicing my son with an easy shot of dopamine that’ll make him feel like Superboy rather than remind him that he’s not dependent on a bank of brain cells that’s predetermined what he can accomplish.  “Oh, you’re so sm –, “ I choke back some days.

“Now see what happens when you don’t give up?”

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard on this blog. It’s taken me 40 years to lay down 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.

Happiness

Credit: Pixabay

When I was just myself, not latched onto and not
stalking my own breath, I was not aware of how
much I could unfold and conform the male race
to my recesses…  >> Read more

My poems in The Writing Disorder, a literary journal that features award-winning writers, poets, and artists:

Happiness
Stillborn
My Breasts
Meeting

THE PRESENT CRISIS: LIFE DOWN TO ITS ESSENCE

Times Square, NYC. Flickr.

Who ever imagined that Times Square in the Big Apple would empty into a ghost town or the streets of Toronto would clear like smoke? Shuffling behind Asia, we’ve surrendered our Starbucks ritual, vacations, graduations, and worship gatherings. And in so doing, we’ve torn from the social fabric of our humanity: community. What has really upended our life in the West is the power of choice the pandemic has compelled us to forfeit. In our technological prowess and the comforts it’s secured for us, the loss reveals a people who are culturally not very good at suffering. >> Read more.

DH. The Banner magazine

Autistic Genius

Being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. People made fun of my stilted manner, my pedantic speech, and my detachment from other people.

I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer, stepping carefully over the rubble and staying out of trouble. There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily, I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.

– Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Smoking Guitar John E. Robison Designed for KISS. Pinterest.

You may have brought John Elder Robison into your home in the 70s if you watched TV or played with an electronic toy. His was the brilliant mind behind the guitars that breathed fire and launched rockets and drove the KISS fans wild from the stage. The sound equipment he built for Pink Floyd’s sound company played before millions across North America. But he left the world of rock and roll thinking himself a fraud and failure, unable to see his value in the social fabric because he couldn’t read social cues. John didn’t know he was successful because he didn’t feel successful. So he moved into the corporate world, engineering electronic toys and games for Milton Bradley until he climbed the ladder where at the peak he found himself managing engineers, and social skills became more important than technical expertise. Although he remained troubled by people’s response to the differences that were evident in him, John didn’t know he was autistic for 40 years until he picked up Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. Nor does he consider himself a genius, but Malcolm Gladwell will disagree because by the time John was 20 years old, he had spent well over 10,000 hours studying music and taking apart electronics, beginning with repair and eventually creating circuits of his own design. John made full use of the laser focus and prodigious capacity for knowledge that was characteristic of Aspergians alongside his commitment to hard work to carve for himself a fulfilling life. His first book, New York Times bestseller Look Me in the Eye, opens the door into the mind of autistic children and those who seem disconnected from the world. I was deeply touched by the testimony that takes us past the struggles of the autistic to the hopes of connection and belonging that embody the human spirit. Our celebrated guest, who has appeared on the Today Show and given countless interviews and talks throughout the country, has graciously taken the time to share some of his discoveries and triumphs with us.

Can you take us through the various points of your journey where you successfully applied your gifts in the face of obstacles?

With a drunk, violent father and a mother who was often manic and sometimes out-and-out crazy, my home life was chaotic and unpleasant. Teachers sometimes saw flashes of exceptionality in me, but that was overshadowed by the many deficiencies kids and adults loved to point out. With no support at school, I dropped out at 15 by which point my parents were in states of collapse, both of them having been committed to the state hospital numerous times.

There were no disability supports for kids back then, at least ones like me. I still managed to have a lot of fun as an emergent adult, playing music, riding my motorcycle, and tinkering with cars and machines. Musicians and car enthusiasts welcomed me because I could do things they valued. Knowing my social limitations, I realized I would never be the guy on stage playing the guitar or the driver racing a rally car to victory. But I could be the guy behind the scenes with the technical skills to help make those things happen. I also became good at fixing cars and between those things, I made enough money to get my own apartment.

I am really lucky to have the ability to fix and create things that others value. Repairing a car or a broken electronic device is a skill that is useful everywhere. Creating stories also has universal value. At first, I wrote reports and proposals for clients. Then I wrote articles in car magazines. After learning about my autism, I decided to write a book and then wrote three more. Now I am back to writing car articles and stories on neurodiversity while running a business that restores, sells, and services high-end cars.

My parents had their share of problems, but despite alcoholism and mental illness they were both successful teachers. I think they would be proud to see that I’ve followed in their footsteps. I enjoy learning and sharing my ideas as the neurodiversity scholar at William and Mary and the neurodiversity advisor for Landmark College. I get to speak on autism and neurodiversity at other colleges every year. As my father did as a professor of philosophy, I grapple with difficult ethical issues in various settings like government autism committees.

Creating pictures, also something I enjoy, too has helped me find success. I earned the down payment on the garage complex of my car company from concert and carnival photo royalties. Today I am proud to see hundreds of musicians and circus performers using my images, which have been widely published, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to billboards along the highway.

Patch.com

What compelled you to reach for success over against your difficult upbringing and social disability?

Looking back at what I’ve achieved, I guess one thing is how important it was to me that I produce good work. The absence of security in my childhood also gave me a very strong drive to make it. I made myself successful as I learned how to minimize my disabilities to the point of acceptability and how to build up my gifts and find people like those musicians who could appreciate what I could do and whose minds were flexible enough to excuse what I couldn’t do.

I believe knowledge of autism at an earlier age would have changed the course of my life. Without the understanding of what made me different, I grew up thinking I was a second-rate human being. Today, with a large number of extremely successful clients in the auto restoration field, I look at myself and them and see how much social disability had held me back. At the same time, I see how far logic, reasoning power, and technical skill have brought me. These things gave me a strong desire to prove I was good and drove me to my various accomplishments.

You’ve cited studies that measured the internal physiological response of autistic people in the face of emotional prompts like watching someone get poked or hurt. Turns out autistic people sustain a stronger response of empathy than nonautistic folks for longer, at that. Could you talk about autistic people’s capacity to love?

Autistic people have the same capacity for love or any other emotion as anyone else. We just don’t always show our emotions in the expected ways, or to the expected degrees. And our emotional responses may not be the same as those of a person who is not autistic for a given triggering event.

How did you manage discouragement?

I just kept working. I failed at things, lost jobs, made and lost friends, but through it all I just kept going because I had no other choice. The weight of that mantle of sadness was very heavy for a long, long time. It’s much less so today. I have always wrestled with anxiety and depression.

Who inspired you in your journey?

In whatever field I worked there were always older engineers and technicians who seemed to be better at everything I could do. They challenged me to improve my skills. Looking back, I am not so sure they could actually do everything better than me, but being older they certainly possessed more wisdom and experience, and many had families and lives outside work, which I hoped to have one day (and eventually did).

For the longest time I internalized my failure in school and saw myself as just a high school dropout, an uneducated failure. I wish I had models who succeeded outside the mainstream but self-educated people are rare today, although they were quite common before the rise of “big education” in the 20th century.

I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider. I don’t want to be a genius or a freak or something on display. I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people.

– Look Me in the Eye

Hit by a Train

I was crossing a rough set of tracks in a 28-wheel diesel truck in October of 2013 when to my astonishment and fear, the crossing gates suddenly dropped, the reds lights began flashing, and the warning bells rang. With not even time to think, all I could do was tighten my grip on the steering wheel. I watched the train come at me before I heard the metal on metal and felt the impact. Everything slowed to a deafening silence and darkness.

When I came to, blood was running down my face. It was over half an hour before someone showed up to help me out of my twisted cab. It took that long before the 107-car freight train could stop after pushing my trailer down the tracks more than a mile and a half and the engineer could reach me on foot. I fell limp into his arms. After a grueling ambulance ride to a clinic, I was emergency-evacuated by helicopter to a medical facility an hour away. A priest there told me it was a miracle I was alive.

I suffered a major concussion with loss of consciousness, contusions on my chest and lungs, and open lacerations on my face. Thankfully I had not damaged any organs. A nurse said God was not finished with me yet. After three days of stitches and morphine, I was discharged into the care of my wife who flew to North Dakota from our home in California.

We discovered weeks later that my jaw had broken and my wrists fractured. The right one got a cast and the left was left to heal on its own. Nine weeks after the accident, my jaw had to be rebroken, realigned, and held together with a titanium plate. I drank Christmas and New Year’s dinners through a straw. Even long after the surgery, it hurt too much to chew, and I remained weak, constantly dropping things. I had never known pain like what I had in my neck and back.

Making my way through 24 specialists, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD, nerve damage, and chronic back and neck pain. I went from being healthy and active to depending on a cocktail of sixteen drugs: pain meds, psychiatric meds, muscle relaxers, sleep meds.

The valley of the shadow of death was no metaphor for me. And told by my doctors that the pain and terrors would be forever, I set up camp in that valley. For several years, I could not drive from the trauma and hardly left my room. Most days I hid beneath the covers, hanging thick blankets over the windows because the dark felt safe, although it didn’t relieve the pain as I imagined it did. The nights were the worst with the horrible nightmares. And startled, I bolted up in bed anytime I heard the train pass.

Was this how the rest of my life was going to play out? The anxiety took a serious toll on my family. My uncontrollable bursts of anger was growing too much for my wife and damaging my relationships with my daughters. I was not the husband or the father my family knew.

Something had to change. I needed to change. I had cried out to God for help and heard that whisper, “Are you ready?” in answer. But no, I wasn’t. I had settled for what my life had become instead of fighting the good fight for His best for me. Seeing me in excruciating pain three months ago, my wife prayed, “Lord, I’m not even asking for healing at this point, just mercy and grace,” She heard back, “I have already healed him. The rest is up to him.” She did not know about the book by John Sarno that our blog hostess HW had encouraged me to read. But I was tired of hurting my family, tired of being estranged from caring friends, tired of all the medications, tired of the suffering, tired of living. I told God I was ready and picked up the book.

In Healing Back Pain, Dr. Sarno, who had freed thousands of people crippled from pain, explained the mind-body connection and how emotional pain seizes the opportunity of a physical injury to make its home there. Though he made no spiritual references, I was brought back to Biblical truths I used to teach on the importance of our thought life. I realized I had to see myself healed before I could embrace my healing. I changed my self-talk and stopped coddling myself. I slowly but purposefully started exercising and through very difficult withdrawal symptoms, weaned myself off the meds. I am down from 16 to 2, and am reminded that I need to hold that picture of myself drug-free.

Six years, four months and counting, I am free. No more bone pain throughout my body. No more anxiety and depression. No more PTSD. No more pain killers. I grab a gallon of milk with no thought. I recently drove over six hours from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back home, my back just fine. I work out regularly and the other week went skydiving for my 60th birthday. Eager to get back to the working life, I am at a new job and excited for what the year holds for me.

God sure isn’t finished with me. I am just beginning.

Dino Fulton

It’s All in the Suffering

photy.org

I was going to say no, I didn’t fall off a cliff, but I – uh, actually, did. And though I lay on the rocks, wishing nothing more than to be wiped off the planet, I somehow made it back up, half-carried by angels, broken bones and all. The bruises linger, but the bones, to my wonder, have healed and the bleeding stopped. I wasn’t done for. As long as I had breath, as long as I could form my words, the world had a place for me. Like the page in this year’s California’s Best Emerging Poets anthology. And the classroom in the private university where I taught composition this semester. I had walked past that door many times early this year, wondering why a job at a homeschool center across the street wasn’t working out, when God had my name on that door, His writing on the wall. We launched Drummer Boy this Fall. (After 12 years of indentured servitude coupled with preteen warfare, I was done. I practically threw him over the school fence.) It was time for me to launch, too. I enjoyed the teaching immensely, and although the steep learning curve on school protocols, the grading platform, and all that grading made for a ride under a burst dam, I didn’t feel mentally challenged. And the impossible hunger pangs for the writing – to do it, not just teach it – didn’t help. I’d been away from the page too long.

In thinking through what the upcoming years might look like for me unchained to my son, I discovered the other night a generous, astonishing opportunity a prestigious institution had extended me on LinkedIn months ago. Two, in fact, when I failed to respond. I glossed over the solicitation before tearing up the golden ticket and tossing it not only because the timing was implausible for me as a mother, but because it was such an amazing invitation I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Then there was my age: my son’s long-awaited self-sufficiency would put me over 50. Yes, I want to build a career with the teaching and writing, but I’m supposed to start tiring after 50, not go pursuing the academic equivalent of a rhino chase on an African safari. But Awesome Friend #1 started taping up the ticket: It seems doable, she wrote. And Awesome Friend #2 pressed it in my hand : Why limit yourself? Who cares how old you will be?

Turns out, I was the only one who cared. I was the one who intended on losing steam after 50. And as the playback on my life revealed, I was the one who’d chosen the classrooms with the low ceiling as a student all these years, afraid to prove I really wasn’t smart or capable. But we won’t find our greatest self where it’s safe or comfortable. Retired Navy SEAL and seemingly superhuman athlete David Goggins says we have to suffer. He named every fear he could before running straight into each one because it was only when he had to decide if he would go on with the broken leg and bloody hands that he met with his highest self, not when he was downing a dozen doughnuts on the couch at 300 pounds. He discovered “the answers are all in the suffering.” Accustomed to them, I am very good at anguish and affliction. I am less skilled at mapping the endurance into lasting victory beyond survival. Hope is not a plan. And no matter how we might dress it with color on a vision board, hope glorified, called a dream, will remain nothing more than a pretty picture without concrete day-in, day-out goals we move toward both physically and mentally.

I am crawling out of a brutal year, one in which I faced the hardest truths about myself. And yet grace has met me in the dungeon, thrown open the doors, and held up a breathtaking life that is mine for the taking if I will shed the self-doubt and get to work. At just a few words from friends who wouldn’t let me shortchange myself, my life took on sudden definition. So I’ve drawn up a game plan that will reorder and fuel my life, the things time and stress had gotten in the way of, but that now tangibly serve a larger purpose, from organizing my house to working out again, studying, and writing. No longer am I sitting and hoping that my writing will be good enough and that the future will favor me. I’m gettin’ up to go git it. I will make my work good enough, silencing the imp on my shoulder that’s whispered all my life: but there are so many writers better than you. I shoved Goggins’ book in her face and refuse to hear her out anymore. I couldn’t care less who’s over me or in front. I will continue to write as though my life depends on it because it does. God has shown me that the works I have published and the classes I have taught are only a prelude to what He has in store if I will reach for the life that is bigger, so much bigger, than my failings and my fears.

Don’t Wait For Your Life

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 in 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. Similarly, 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 wrangled with the question of 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 appreciative 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’.

Pixabay/Qimono

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.

Sometimes They Love You, Sometimes They Don’t

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 reading from their book at gatherings 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 and from an international poetry contest. Honorees from the competition 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.

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 the eyes of someone in authority at the hands of 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, or 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.

When Life Doesn’t Cooperate

JK,

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 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 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.

Love always,
D.

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.

Age

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
permanent collections.

Most of all, thank you for allowing us to publish your work.

Warm wishes,

William Harry Harding
Publisher,
for The Judges

San Diego Entertainment & Arts Guild