Saturday, December 13, 2014

The comfort of what I know

Holidays are my time to overdose on Hallmark movies. As an avid watcher, I've seen them all (save the 12 new ones), at least four (and more) times. Yet I tune in with the kind of glee saved for children opening their holiday gifts. They are my shameless treat to myself.

Two good-looking actors take their places, then spend two hours on the edge of connecting, save for the disaster that keeps them from one another. Will the tall, handsome architect rip down the homeless shelter that is in the way of a shopping mall he wants to build? Will the petite, brunette social worker, who he flirted with at a cafe, forgive him? After all, she works at the shelter (of course). Will she turn him around, get him to build across town?

Stay tuned. These simple, reliable plots grab and comfort me. Architect and social worker will threaten with lawsuits, exchange sideways venomous looks. Ten minutes before the end he'll reveal he grew up in a shelter. She'll stroke his cheek as he says he plans to move the residents into a new development. How can she not fall in love with this man? I do, again and again and again.  

In an interview recently, I was asked, "Do you reread books?" "I love to," I replied. I feel nurtured reading and viewing things that I can rely on to be unchanging.
In my life as an adjunct and freelancer, my days have the order of disorder. Mon/Wed a.m. at this school, p.m. at another. Tues, writing day, unless I get an editing gig, which always trumps writing. Friday, test-grader at a third school, and so on. If it's Saturday, as it is today, I relish in the luxury of staying in one place.

Tomorrow my work week starts up. The last week of classes is a challenge fraught with last-minute emails begging for a pass, in spite of ten and upwards absences. The week is filled too with a tower of papers to grade. Mercifully, there are my movies. Sappy, predictable, steady.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Working things out

To my list of things I bless God for (good health, nice apartment, coffee!), I add wireless. I'm sitting up in bed, laptop propped on my knees, minus a slew of wires and cords. Life is good.

I ponder what to write. For the first time in many months, I'm swollen with topics. They come to me in the form of  unresolved (or is it unspoken?) feelings. For this writer, that is a treasure chest of material.

I said goodbye to a job that was a bad fit. When I began to emotionally separate from the job, I was overwhelmed by grief. Unfortunately, I took that grief to Kripalu where I went for Thanksgiving. Many others there seemed to be grappling with difficulties as well. I marveled that they leave home to do so. I'm more comfortable working things out at home, in a familiar landscape. But there I was. It was impossible to not reflect on my feelings. Before I knew it, over the lunch feast, I saddled two new friends with my Holocaust history. The loss of my job had hurtled me back to my legacy of sorrow. (The irony of luscious food and inner sadness wasn't lost on me.)

I hate it when the big H rears its head. In yogic philosophy, it's my samskara, my scar. Knowing that helps me to keep perspective, move forward. And I do. One week later, I stretch into the freedom, the lift of my shoulders no longer weighted down.

Today is a work day. It's the last day with one of my favorite classes. We're interpreting the Declaration of Independence, which we began two weeks ago. I admit I had to consult with a source (aka friend Laurie) to get up to speed on the document I hadn't read since fifth grade. It's true when they say the teacher is always a student.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Finding the right om

Day three at Kripalu. I sit at a picture window in the cafe, the only spot that has wifi and invites a chatty culture. I had looked forward to my three days here, felt caressed by all the yoga-ness, days before my arrival.

Yesterday, while sitting in a "share group" after an intense writing exercise, preceded by an hour and a half of yoga, I wondered, "Is it possible to have too much yoga?" If I were teaching now, I would tell my students this is a perfect example of a rhetorical question, for the mere pondering of it, tells me, yes. Perhaps it is the immersion of all things introspective, a state I visit often enough and this holiday weekend, I need to be extro-spective. There are hikes and dancing (hip ailment renders that a no), and ways to get outside one's self. But. . .big but coming on, I brought with me a disquieting conflict that isn't resolving through yoga or sharing or the written word. The thought of home brings me om. 

The snowy outdoors calls me to go outside and play. At some point there is the return to the stillness, to this sign which unsettles me.

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is my story?

Day two at Kripalu and I am taking a writing class. I'm here (in this class) because I want to pick up some tricks for my upcoming creative writing workshops. I'm not here to write or to discover new material or overcome writer's block or put pen to page--even though I need and want to do all of the above.

And so because I'm not here for any of these things--which means not forcing any words upon myself--they all happen. It doesn't hurt that I'm a teacher and can't mess around with another teacher's prompts and free writes.It doesn't hurt that she (Lara Tupper) is an excellent teacher.

The topic for today: What's your story? In yoga-speak that means, what are the stories you tell yourself about yourself, that define you? Are they who you are today or narratives from the past that linger?

While sitting on cushions, leaning against a backrest in a warm, cozy room, one of my stories rises to the surface: I'm too old to start my life over. Not even from the beginning...say, be twenty or thirty and have a life ahead, but from now: Can there be a next career? A next city? A next book (metaphorically), rather than merely, a next chapter?

While on the bus from the Port Authority to Lenox, the snow-capped mountains invited me to change my life. Live here! they said to me. Teach in a university tucked away in a small town, down a winding road, up a hill, someplace where there are lots of trees! (Yes, I know, Columbia. Central Park. But that's not what the mountains had in mind.)

A rush of adrenaline went through me recalling myself ten years ago, applying to MFA programs all over the country. I was on an adventure (or so I thought). I ended up staying in New York because, well. . .as much as I wanted to change my life, I was equally afraid of doing so.

This morning, I share my one-sentence story with the group; many heads nod. I'm not alone, and if there is anything one learns at a place like Kripalu, it is that none of us are. We're all here working out the last sentences of a story, even though we've turned the page.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On writer's block

A few days ago I held a writing workshop on "Idea to Rough Draft." A participant asked, How do I deal with writer's block? It was a question I should have been prepared for, not just as a teacher, but because it was perfect for the class theme. And yet, I felt stumped. I'd never had writer's block, or so I thought.

In a non-touchy-feely way (I regret), I told her something like, Sometimes you have to sit to write, whether you want to or not. It's like exercising. You may not feel like it, but you do it. Another participant had a better and more sensitive approach: write to the writer's block. As it questions. Student #1 thanked her; because she sat close to me, I felt her relief. This morning, I feel my own relief, as I've been plagued by an unwillingness to write (not sure it's a block) for several months. I call it my new interest in painting (possibly), my lack of an idea (absolutely not true), my hesitancy to return to the solitary world of the writer (very true). But this last, most serious one, I'll punch holes in, for as a writer and rather shy person, whether I write or not, I spend a chunk of time in solitude.

One thing I've noticed is that I haven't written anything because I'm afraid of making a mistake. And yet, I've always been a writer who is in it more for process than publish. This same fear jumps out at me when I practice painting. As a brand-new artist, every single thing I paint is practice. And yet, I hesitate to take risks, to go bold or wild or crazy. I follow my teacher's instructions in spite of a continuous inner dialogue that says, make a mess. As a teacher, I know that students who aren't willing to make a mess will likely not get to their best material.

I want to start a novel; I want to get so lost in my characters, I break through the wall of solitude. I want to break through another wall, the one that says, it's over kiddo. No more writing. As I told the student in my workshop, I do have to discipline myself, sit, type something. And as touchy-feely student said, I will ask that wall, what purpose are you serving?

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I awake thinking of clouds. This isn't a foreshadow of how I see my day (although it is raining) or my emotional state. I'm challenged in my painting life in how to paint clouds, the hardest subject I've encountered (not counting my 4-week misstep into painting the nude).

Since beginning my watercolor lessons, I see the natural world in a new way. I took clouds for granted; they were there or not, up in the sky in the external world, or deep inside myself, in need of a bolt of thunder to release their gloom. This morning I picture their shapes, soft and creamy like puffs of whiteness, long and lazy, dark and threatening, streamers through the sky.

In my mind's eye they are simple yet complex subjects. Do I leave my paper white and paint around the cloud shape? (Cheating) Do I paint the whole thing and then tissue off a long lazy strip (a technique much harder than it appears)? Do I do a bit of both?

I awake and think, these cloud-thoughts I didn't,  I couldn't, have imagined having a mere few months ago. And now, they are natural, like awaking to write. Which brings me to, since taking up watercolors, people ask me: is the process similar to when you started writing?  

In some ways yes, but in most ways no. In my early writing days I wrote because I couldn't not write and I loved every second of it. The rewards were immediate and intense. My whole being connected to the page, the keyboard; words flew out of me so fast I had no idea how they had remained stored inside. I didn't think of process or discipline or commitment or talent. I was in the process--whatever that meant--discipline and commitment--why would I not return to the work every second I could? And talent? I knew I had it. Through the years, there is so much more I learned about writing, but  a way with words and craft? I had them. Maybe it was genetic or a legacy from my mother, a born storyteller.

Painting is completely different. I do it not because of talent, or love, or because I'm intrinsically a painter. I began because I needed to begin something new. I thought learning to paint watercolors would be fun. I stick with it because I like the discipline and because I'm keeping a commitment-pact with myself. So far, the learning has been difficult, tiring, inspired (I have a teacher who gives 300%), and once-in-awhile, when I veer from assignments and technique, it's fun. The process, the trial and error, absorbs me and tells me to stick with this, see where it leads. And so I return, observe myself returning, picking up my brush or buying new colors (yesterday: cobalt blue and Payne's gray) and those simple tasks are a reward.There is no goal of publication (or an audience) or of perfection. 

The painting below is my first mountain-scape without following instructions. (Note the clouds.) The leaves on the right, on the stained background, are my fun project.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


A Holidate (excerpt from The Ambivalent Memoirist)

On Yom Kippur, I have a date with my mother. The conflicts I had when she was alive never accompany me on these meetings. I’ll find her in the pews at the synagogue where I’ll say Yizkor. My grief will join us, for it arises during prayer as if for the first time.

As awful as grief is, there’s something alive and free about crying fresh, hard tears. I remember when my father passed away, a friend told me, “Enjoy your grief.” I understood immediately: one day the pain would lift, and with that relief, my connection to my father would fade. Today, I’m not sad, although I have a distinct wish to recapture a Yom Kippur past, in fact a very specific ritual.

After the shofar was blown, signifying the end of the twenty-four-hour fast, my mother and I raced home from shul. As we ran, my mother lit the cigarette hidden in her glove. At home, we prepared the table with delectable foods. We licked the salt off our fingers from the Nova Scotia lox, the white fish that fell out of its ripply golden skin.

I miss running home with my mother, waving to my father across the pews, gathering with my girlfriends in front of a synagogue to look for boys.

I miss not knowing what the future will hold.