Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

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Thoughts on the Recursive. And Thank You.

© 2010 David Parker

Apparently, with no focal point (like a sun or a star or a you or a me), and with every intention to walk in a straight line, people walk around in circles. But, whether we’re blindfolded or just stumbling through the thick pitch of night, while we’re doing all of that wandering, we think we’re walking in a straight line. Without that external corrective, something inside of us, something about the way our atoms fit together, something about our biology, will not stay straight. I think part of what Souman’s study might reveal is that the human journey is not the shortest distance between two points. Rather, it seems to be the circle that connects one point back to itself.

This resonates with me. Maybe even validates my very existence. Because I do things, the same things, over and over, expecting different results. Someone once told me that this is the mark of insanity, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the mark of humanity. Because don’t we all fall into patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, rhythms of the everyday that are impossible to break? At least, they seem impossible to break. Especially without some kind of focal point like a person or a plan.

There are certain places in the geography of my life that I have been circling for the past five years–one of those places is the beginning of my teaching career. Another might be the day I met Ruthie. Another might be my divorce. Another might be the death of my grandfather. Another might be who I am in my family and who I am for real. And we all have these events, these anchors. Like the novelist Darin Strauss , who ran over a teenager when he was a just a teenager and wrote about it in fiction without knowing he was writing about it. (Now he’s finally written about it on purpose in a memoir called Half a Life.) And the only way that I’ve found to move past these events (or move through them the way one might move through a forest with trees thick as thieves and no light of day) is to write about them. With intention. The story of the event becomes my focal point, the external corrective to my inner recursive nature. And the sifting through those events reveals more and more of who I am. And that reveal is such a relief. Because for too long I’ve wandered around with these stories, these fragile stories, that I had to guard and protect and wear wrapped around my face. And now, here they are. Public and unapologetic: my stories.

And STORY is what carries us back to ourselves. Odysseus receives his ship home in return for a story. He tells a story in exchange for a ship that will (finally) take him back to where he came from, where his identity began. And I think it’s important that he tells his story. He doesn’t get the ship home in exchange for thinking of his story, but in exchange for sharing his story. And in telling my stories, I feel like I’m kind of giving myself back to myself. Owning not only the parts that are uncomfortable and awkward, but especially the parts that I’m proud of, the parts that were hard, the parts where I became. That ownership comes from sharing, and with each sharing, I’m peeling away pieces of my blindfold that hide me from my home.

All this is to say thank you. Thank you for reading and for watching me walk blindly in circles. I’d have no hope of home or a ship to carry me there were it not for your listening, allowing me to share. Just. Thank you.

Faith and Baby Steps

© 2010 David Parker

About a month ago I met Faith, and ever since, I’ve been carrying it around like a new born baby swaddled up in mind-maps and golden tickets punched by me. I’ve discovered that faith (in people and in my own ideas) takes a lot of trusting and a hell of a lot of baby steps.

Today I counted and I have about eight projects in the works. Several of them will appear here, as baby steps. The first is a series of installments about how I became a teacher. Last year was a very discouraging one for me as an educator. I started off this year feeling frustrated with the educational system in general and defeated in particular by the experiences I’d had in my classroom. I used to feel like my career choice was meaningful, that I was accomplishing some truly humane purpose, but as I met people in industries outside of education (especially artistic ones), I became increasingly disenchanted with my profession.  From this disenchantment came the founding of an interdisciplinary arts organization and the beginning of a writing project. Because I’ve only ever understood anything through story, and because I can’t do anything well that I don’t perceive to be meaningful, I decided that the only way for me to make sense of my profession and find the meaning I have been missing was to go back and tell the story of how I arrived here. You can find those installments under the category “Becoming Ms. Reed.”

Against Transience

© 2010 David Parker

I’m sitting in a coffee shop around the corner and I’m the only one unplugged. I have no computer, no ear phones, just pen and paper and I’m fascinated by my ability to grab onto an idea and shape it into something tangible, something real. (I think I saw it breathe.) And I’m struck by how my computer is so like a doorway in the fall with leaves blowing in, and how information is so like the leaves, and how I am, constantly, gathering and scooping up the leaves but they all slip out of my hands. Transient is the word that comes to mind. But not today. Today, I can hang onto the ideas and study them and lay them down, one next to each other, and measure them against themselves. And I have the time and the space and the permanence of pen and paper to make decisions about which are the prettiest, the most golden, and I throw the rest out. These are the ones that remained.

Waving and Thankful

© 2010 David Parker

All my life people have been trying to save me. My grandmother, many of my friends in high schools and college, my family, but especially my grandmother. And they all say the same things: that God is working on my heart and that they are praying for me. All my life, I assumed that these people who wanted to save me were acting from some personal conviction that either they were better than me or I was doing something terribly wrong, or both. Today I saw two people who have been praying for me for a long time: my grandmother and a very dear, beautiful friend whom I’ve known since I was in kindergarten.

This morning, we visited my grandmother in the nursing home. She was dozing on the couch in the common room when we got there and it took her a few seconds for her face to register that she saw us. Ruthie came skipping in with me and all the old ladies sitting in heaps around the room turned toward Ruthie like flowers toward the sun. Terribly unsettling and sad. And so we sat there, Grandmother and I, on the badly upholstered sofa, while Ruthie flip-flopped like a fish out of water. She was so taken with Ruthie and how big she’s gotten. I was so taken by the fact that she’d evidently had her toenails painted a deep shade of red (I later learned that they offer manicure/pedicures at the home). When I left she said that next time I came home, she’d take me shopping and assured me that she had been praying for me. There was something about the way she said these last two things that made my chest hurt.

On the way out, I checked the time. We’d been there maybe 40 minutes. It occurred to me that she’s there all day. More chest hurting.

At 1:00, I picked up my friend for lunch. 45 minutes later, I was crying into my white truffle chicken salad. We talked a lot mostly about how we thought things would be much easier, how we only wanted these small things. And then she started talking about hope and what her hope is in. I’ve never understood hope, and, when I have allowed myself to hope, I have been generally disappointed. My friend has also been disappointed, but she hopes anyways. And she hopes for me. And prays for me. And I am so deeply, wonderfully grateful.

Grateful because both of these women were offering me their hopes and their prayers the way you would offer anyone you love a cup of tea with honey at the end of a long shitty day. No judgement, just a desire to share something that has made their hearts lighter.

It’s strange how heavy thankfulness can feel. It’s much easier to shrug off other people’s hopes and prayers, even get pissed off at them, get all Who does she think she is praying for me. Because to accept their hopes, their prayers, is also to admit that you need them (even if you don’t understand them). And gratitude, real gratitude, is humbling. And humility is rather uncomfortable.

So last week, I wrote about “Thanks,” a poem by the new Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. This poem mesmerized me when I read it the first time or two, but today I felt it in my bone marrow. In the last stanza, he writes

we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Two things are difficult about these last lines for me: that nobody’s listening and that it’s dark. But it occurs to me that someone is listening: me, the reader. I’m listening to the voices in this poem saying thank you. So maybe not-nobody’s listening to me too. And maybe I’m waving in the dark, but there’s a lot of us here waving in the dark, so maybe we’re not waving at nobody. Even though I can’t always see it or hear it, I believe in the we of this poem. And isn’t that faith?

As Though I Knew What I Was Doing

© 2010 David Parker

The short prose poem of yesterday totally ruined me. I wrote like six of them and they were all pitifully dramatic and try-hard. It made me wonder why I’m doing this whole write-something-everyday-for-a-year thing. I thought by now, it might come easier to me, but it seems to be getting harder and harder. And I think it’s getting harder and harder because I’m kind of still expecting to be struck with the magical Something-to-Say. And today, when I subjected my students to the prose poem assignment, I realized that maybe this task has been so arduous for me because I haven’t been following my own advice.

Two things I always tell my students: writers keep notebooks, and writing is thinking. I haven’t kept a notebook since I started this project and I’ve spent a great deal of time staring at my screen. If I were in my own class, I’d be failing. So when I started today’s Writing Workshop with my students, I followed along with them and probably got more out of it than they did. For instance, the very idea of a prose poem forced us to analyze what makes a poem a poem when there are no line breaks (we came up with concrete imagery that shows an emotion, idea, or experience). Then we started building our poems together. First, choose a major life event that you can remember very clearly. Next, freewrite about a specific moment from that event that captures how you felt and why that moment was important, focusing on the five senses. Then take all that crap you wrote down and find three or four sentences to scrap together.

At the beginning, the kids were reluctant. The thought of writing for five minutes without stopping was unthinkable. But no one was ready to stop when I called time–not one out of nearly 70 kids. And most classes wrote for another ten. Then, because the space was so limited, it forced them to think about all kinds of lovely things like sentence structure and using strong verbs and how to choose an image so that it does something in a poem. They can’t wait to share their stuff with each other tomorrow, and I’m kind of proud of the work that we generated together as well. Win!

So my challenge to each of you readers is to post a three– or four–sentence prose poem here. So we can all see it. I dare you. Here’s mine from today (about my first teaching job):

The room smelled of chalkboards, dust, old papers–like the inside of a drawer that had been shut for years. Empty desks were pushed against the walls as though they’d been in a wreck. Behind the teacher’s desk was an old wooden student chair that looked like it’d been chewed up and spit out whole. I collapsed into the chair and began scratching out lessons as though I knew what I was doing.

What Work Is

© 2010 David Parker

Two weeks in and writing still feels like work. In facts, it feels worse than work because it’s like wrestling with yourself in words that will haunt you tomorrow with how terribly boring you are. The easy way out is to write about what you did that day or how the weather is, but to write honestly about what you think and feel and see and do is damned hard work. To write requires that you be utterly, terribly, transparently honest with yourself first (a horrifying prospect), and then that you share that truth with other people–sometimes even people you’ve never met. I was talking on the phone with a dear, dear friend about how hard it is to just be honest all the time. I feel like our culture kind of grooms us for dishonesty. Like, if I don’t want to go to a party, I tend to make up some reason why I can’t go rather than just saying that I won’t be able to make it. Blogging has been like that for me in the past as well–I would wait until I had something interesting enough or clever enough or funny enough to write about before i would write anything. The depressing thing is how few and far between my posts became. The strange thing is that I should be sort of “freed” by this newfound honesty. Instead, I’m finding it difficult to find things to write honestly (and interestingly) about. Take, for instance, this post that you’re reading right now. “Well there’s not much there,” you’re thinking to yourself. But what if I told you that this post was finally written in 30 minutes in the fetal position in front of my computer? After three false-starts (about completely different topics), I decided to just focus on the experience of trying to write and what’s at stake. So of course every word feels like agony… I’m writing myself. Here. Right now. And that’s damned hard writing.