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, bruises and cuts. 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. 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, when it’s not a beautiful ache. I want to drive under the influence – and once I’ve stepped out into fresh air, start climbing.

 

Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist and your word is a clear brook. Flick, and you have a blade, or a balm. To be able to put out one, two, three words for a title and draw people in; convince them to pause in their hurried steps and step inside, there is a power in that. They pull up a seat, and some linger and chat. Some cry a little; other times they walk out still laughing because it was the room of your childhood they had entered and they remembered. The window to your marriage you’d opened and they know. It was your messy soul they inhabited briefly, experienced from the inside out and they blushed a little. It was their one-minute confessional before they drew the door back out to the light.

There is something religious about writing for me. It calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs you are so fond of, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words, either in the potency of language or your own ability to cherry-pick its offerings. Your line must not be vivid enough, else why do you need four modifiers in a breath? Could you find one or two that do the job? I am full of faith. Let’s try this together.

The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.

Sorry this is not sexy. But I am so grateful for the mercy of the missing adverb I want to cry.

For starters, we have the imagery of darkness replaying itself in the draped, black, curtains. Then the picture of something brewing duplicated in ominous, storm, portentous, trouble. As if the two ideas weren’t redundant enough, they are so similar as to feed each other (black and storm, for instance, serving both the gloom and imminence).

Let me illustrate how I see the writing process with a metaphor that is a religion all its own for many. In basketball, the three-pointer is one of the most impressive shots of course, made farthest from the basket. The ball, which we can liken to the word, spurns distance, flying with grace, muscle, surety. This is writing, the art of nailing it. The three-pointer holds an interesting success rate of about 35% in the NBA. The best players in America make it only a third of the time.

So an autopsy of our overclouded sentence reveals the problem wasn’t so much a superfluity of adjectives or even of ideas. That was merely the symptom of either an impotence toward a clear purpose or even a deeper mistrust in the authority of the word. I say it was a spiritual death. I usually build from the bone of meaning, combining nouns and verbs that I hope are crisp, to relatable metaphors, rather than slather on the fat and spice from the start. If I can use a noun that’s picturesque or compelling enough, I hold back the adjective (just redemption, which I’d considered embellishing above). And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in measuring my words like a child in wartime rationing her meal, it isn’t just economy I’m after but also meaning, style, tone, and depth. Conveying all these elements as efficiently as one can is simplicity. I am not saying you can’t describe the morning in three adjectives. Sharon Olds with her many trippy, hypothermic descriptives has had me in knots barely able to get through her pain-saturated poems. But let’s respect this thing we call language. That is the sacred.

Obviously I am talking to people who want to raise the bar on their writing. We have a huge pet aisle here on WordPress and if you mean only to keep up the anecdotes about your dog, you don’t have to hamstring yourself. But if you want to be writing better, be sharper on the page than you were four years ago, don’t give yourself cheap praise. Question your choices and their motives. Whether you’re writing a travel journal, history, fiction, or poetry, ask yourself if every word is necessary because each one is doing its own thing, contributing something fresh to your picture. Fancy dribbling isn’t what scores your game.

If you have a better way – and the shelves are lined with authors who do – by all means have at it. But first, ask any man. A hint of perfume and he leans in. Assault me with it in the elevator, and uh, excuse me. I think I’ll take the stairs. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit, too much fills on the drums. Black clouds sat over the mountain.

Oh, but what’s that? You don’t believe me. You think I’m a blogging Grinch who’s out to steal your Christmas or keep you from your ebook sell-out. You think I didn’t catch that adverb in your clutch. Fine. I’ll leave you to your opinion of fine writing. But if you think me a pious know-it-all, at least close the curtains and on your way out, please remember the shoes you should’ve removed. Yes, thank you. In all fairness, no one made you enter my sacred ground.

[Poetry] is for me Eucharistic. You take somebody else’s suffering, their passion into your body and…you’re transformed by it, you’re made more tender, or more human. You’re more alive to your fellow human beings. I could literally read a poem and lift my head from the page and look out and my heart would just be softer. I think it kept me alive for a long time.

~ Mary Karr, 2011 Writers’ Symposium by the Sea

Greatness: The Art of War

DAWNING
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, what I’d dismissed as irrational violence 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.

WONDER
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 fly1champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I was 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.”

FEAR
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.

cameronTHE GLADIATOR
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 been successful 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.

WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany. His posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia were treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9 – and perhaps because of them – he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. His wife Eleanor, won over to his vision, prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any child who was sick would be refused at the threshold of Immigration and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. Since “Jews were not permitted to give the Nazi salute and any parents who so much as raised an arm could be arrested, their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and were reunited with their children. Several more succeeded in coming to America during and after the war, but others perished in the Holocaust.” Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans who wanted their lives to mean more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.

Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The exuberant response to the election results among some families I know brought with it a revelation. Though they have been plenty polite, some even kind, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life that seems unnatural to me in diverse Southern California. But then again, I thought, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. Multiculturalism doesn’t work that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color: NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. Among the many reasons, suffice it to say those who have to interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white people enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and news media.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas, wasn’t it? After all, America had problems of her own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct. War, disease, emigration, loss of culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built herself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother, separately, were mugged at knifepoint, and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters came out of the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea – although as long as he admits to no Native Indian ancestors, he hails from immigrants like the rest of us. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My Asian-American friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. The commitment to excellence, our I.Q, the drive with which we emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented disparate cultures in the fissures of mistrust as we did business together, advanced the economy together, with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires first, or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you will learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance. It’s not always front and center but in this country, the holy grail of opportunity awaits the thirsty and the earnest. There is always room for resourcefulness, a corner you can turn. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can appeal with that beautiful, powerful voice you claimed at birth in appeal. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. At least they could, before.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly, the many faces of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in this country. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.

stargazers

stargazers in furious
bloom – vanilla air –

are the only flowers
that trust me, tell me

i am not hopeless;
the juice in their veins, the way
they gulp the sun and meet my face,
their beauty and their business

say i don’t need a green thumb
and the riotous garden.

all one needs is a singular love.

 

stargazer