Where the Sweeney Hall courtyard opens onto the SJSU promenade

September 30, 2017

Red mesh fencing drapes

around grassy islands

surrounded by crisscrossing sidewalks

skateboard wheels click click

across each crack

while three young writers’ voices

rise from a bench

laughing and joking.

 

Other writers quiet

on cool concrete steps

A breeze moves leafy trees

and a small flutter of journal pages.

 

Distant gardening tools buzz

Crows lift up over rooftops

in argumentative cadence

Walkers in Keds with earbuds

glide by silently.

 

I will write, dammit.

 

Sometimes life is so beautiful it breaks your heart

A semi-imaginary correspondence with Anne Lamott, I wrote in 2010

Dear Anne Lamott,

You write extraordinary insights and pointed advice:  listen to your broccoli, accept your emptiness, start with a one-inch frame, do short assignments, be militantly on your own side, etc.   Yet, in an uncharacteristically schmaltzy tone, you wrote in Bird by Bird, “There’s ecstasy in paying attention.”  Anne, you are usually much more grounded than this!  With all due respect, this sounds like the pop-Zen of the sixties.

I have recently re-opened myself to the writing process; and, as this observant life takes over my sleep, my waking thoughts, my eating habits, my housekeeping and my reactions to all the little things in daily life, I feel like a supporting actress in a soap who is the last one on the set to find out she has spleen cancer in this week’s episode.  I’m just not getting the noble part of this paying attention.

I cried over the dance scene in Toy Story 3 in which Buzz Light-year. en modo Espanol, Latin dances with Jessie, the redhead cowgirl prototype of Annie Oakley.

I wept at the downtown carwash.  Tears dripped under my sunglasses viewing the latest bridal fashions in the window of Trudy’s  — with their flamenco skin-tight bodice and torso and sweeping narrow cut to the flourishing ruffles below the knees.  Ole!  Not grief for the fashion statement, but mourning my own binding belief that women who are married are happier and more worthy than women who are single.  Definitely not ecstatically appreciating my newfound freedom.  And talk about pinched by pain, like a corset; I am bound to dancing with daddy as his “little girl.” This was my first notion of romance without having a trendy purity ball.

Somewhere around midnight last night, I woke up to silence in my neighborhood.  As I lay there wondering why I was awake, one explosion – a gunshot, I think – broke the stillness and then the quiet returned.  Did a bullet lodge in someone’s wall?  Was it a threat?  Did someone shoot a raccoon in his or her backyard?  Did they mistake my black and white cat and shoot Mickey?  Is another bullet going to come zinging closer?  Was it really not a weapon after all, etc., etc.  Waking up to what is going in and around me is shocking like that explosion.

So, I’m wondering where’s the ecstasy in becoming a leaky-eyed lunatic who cannot stop looking below the surface of things that make normal people happy?  I mean, weddings!

Sincerely,

Laura

Dear Laura,

            When I wrote my chapter, “Looking Around,” I did say you might get into a special “Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness…” Maybe.  I simply meant that if you start to look around you see.  Beauty and pain.  Please re-read my introduction in the chapter in which I explain my position clearly: what’s going on is we’re all up to here in it… 

            I advise you to try to see who you really are in the most compassionate possible sense.  This is likely to be a new experience of your self.  As you have experienced this summer, it’s hard to look at yourself with compassionate detachment.  It will take practice.  On page 99, I suggest looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train.  You don’t drop kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor.  You just keep bringing it back to the newspapers. 

            So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there with reverence.  Let’s think of reverence as awe, openness to the world.  The alternative is that we stultify, shut down. 

            Laura, please read my Toni Morrison story on pg. 193 again.  You are just breaking free of bondage to people in your history and from a way of life.  As Toni says, “Go ahead, tell your story.  Risk freeing someone else.”

                                                            Sincerely,

                                                            Anne Lamott

 

Dear Anne,

I think I get what your ecstasy is about.  My new favorite quote from Bird by Bird is the end of the Looking Around chapter: “To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up it own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one”

I will hang in with the mind training and take a more compassionate view of myself.  I don’t want to go back to shut down mode.  I’ll pay attention.

 

Yours truly,

Laura

Goal 1 Get a Writing Group

Writing Retreat

Retreat is a serious word that can mean life or death if one is in a war.  Retreat, from a puppy’s perspective, means if I sit up and beg again I have a good chance of getting another little doggie biscuit.  A writing retreat has nuances of both for me.

Tucking into a beautiful historic home with thirteen other creative types for five days does imply that I have not really been able to write like I want to in my “normal” routines at work and home.  The war with distraction and fatigue has not gone so well so I am withdrawing from the front line to regroup.  Perhaps to practice running away into retirement.

A retreat of any sort might not interest me, but this tug from my soul — this surge of joy in drawing and writing —  drew me to the Ralston Writing retreat.  Many biscuits already in meeting interesting new people, in the lovely surroundings, and hearing their writerly goals for the retreat time. Something stirred in me about renewing the writing on our co-authored blog.  So, here’s an early morning, before breakfast post.  And I am off to enjoy nature.

Nook in main room

Opening Scene

FADE IN:

EXT. ELEMENTARY SCHOOL – DAY

The surrounding hills make Warbler Elementary School seem like a beacon of hope, a place to breathe fresh air and embrace young children.  Its sign glows like an invitation to come learn.

DISSOLVE  TO:

INT. ELEMENTARY SCHOOL – ROOM B2 – DAY

Teachers sit in table groups.  The lights are off.  Only the glow of the Powerpoint on the SMART board illuminates their faces.

LORENA, fizzling out instructional coach,  desiring nothing else but a writer’s life, blindly staggers into the room like a drunk.

LORENA

Is this an empty..?

SCHOOL SECRETARY, 47, closes the door behind Lorena, its heavy thud announces Lorena’s arrival and indicates there is no escape.

SCHOOL PRINCIPAL, 52, bitter, struggling to stay above water, doesn’t check emails, drives home and bathes in vodka, only glances at the door.

SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

SST process will help us in finding support for students.  If you go back to the timeline, you can see that the process starts early, not too early, but early, it could be earlier, but it is early enough.  This early detection is going to be great, just great.

5TH GRADE TEACHER, 46, more bitter than the principal, scores every damn piece of paper her students produce.

5TH GRADE TEACHER

Why doesn’t THE distriiiiicct make the SST process start earlier?  This is a disservice to the kids.  By the time they get to me, they are soooooo LOW.

SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

So I said, that the process starts early, yes it could be earlier, but this early is early enough. Go back to the timeline and you see it is early.

KINDER TEACHER, nearing death in age, head full of thick, dry hair, the bitterest of the group.

KINDER TEACHER

This is just toooooo much work.  THE district is asking for too much.  I fill out the forms and then what? I sit and wait! No! No! No! I won’t do that.  Kids need help now!

5TH GRADE TEACHER

What? Did no one hear what I said? By the time THOSE kids get to me, they are so far, far, far below grade level.  They can’t add, they can’t read, and they can’t write!

KINDER TEACHER

That doesn’t just apply to you, that goes for all of us! We have too many kids who can’t do anything!

SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

And the district didn’t send anyone out to talk to us.

ALL, 28 teachers, sitting in a dark room in the late afternoon of a bright, sunny day, dreaming of making die cut pumpkins.

ALL

Hahahahahaha!!! (several snorts)

TO BE CONTINUED…

Life on Vacation

I spent the last few days away from work, an early October break.  Here is how it went:

I confided in a friend that I was secretly going to seek a position with the U.S. Post Office and that way, I could A.) leave my current position B.) focus on my writing life C.) still manage to make the house payment D.) have benefits.  That idea came burning down like a house of straw on fire as she confided in me that her boyfriend had read the works of a famous poet who had once been a part of the USPS.  Apparently he had referred to it as a “life sucking, trauma inducing, soulless place” or something like that.

I rented a car to  drive up two hours north of San Jose and visit my mom.  After all the paperwork, I was ushered upstairs to get the car.  I walked out of the elevator, handed over the papers from downstairs and was told, “you pick. Either the black one or silver one.  Keys are inside. Someone will help you on your way out.  The exit is that way.” Friendly. Real friendly.  I gazed at the two cars and chose the black Ford Fusion.  I got inside, grabbed the keys and…there was no key.  I looked around the steering wheel and saw it: a black button that said Push to Start. I did, the car then told me to step on the brake, I did and all the lights came on.  I didn’t hear an engine, but the blinking light indicated the car was ready.  Great. I tried to turn on the radio.  And could not figure it out.  All those damn buttons and knobs.  I turned up the volume loud, nothing, I adjusted the Tune knob, nothing. This car was too complicated for me.  I finally figured out how get the spaceship into Drive and began exiting the parking garage.  On the way out, I asked the attendant how to get the radio to work.  She didn’t answer me and instead requested to see my driver’s license.  Then just before sending me away, she mumbled, annoyed, “push the power button.”

I went to visit my very sick and elderly uncle with my mom.  It was early in the morning and as we walked into his hospital room, his eyes looked me over. I saw it.  He didn’t know who I was until my mom yelled out, “Look who came to visit you! Lorena!” Even then I am not sure that he fully understood I was the girl that he had teased so often.  I hung back, watching the way my mom cut up his french toast in little pieces and prepared his coffee then fed him.  I wondered if I would ever be able to do the same for my older brother.  I watched my uncle take little sips of coffee from the mug held by my mom. I saw how little he ate.  I decided to have a talk with my older brother just to make sure he was watching his health.

I saw Old Faithful for the first time.  As we walked into the park, Pete,  my mom and I saw the geyser blowing.  Jets of water squirted into the October sky.  Vapor came off it to show that this was HOT water.  We stood watching it for a good two minutes before it just sputtered off and went silent. We fed the smelly goats, lounged in practically all the cabanas, swings and patio chairs there were and read everything in the geology museum. We gazed at the water when it came squirting out and I decided that I had let too much life pass me by.

I took a long afternoon nap on my mother’s couch.  I hadn’t even realized how it had snuck up on me, but it happened.  The TV was talking softly in the background, my older brother was playing with his dog and the air carried that perfect warmth that just murmurs, “close your eyes, close your eyes, close your eyes.” So I did.

I made my own breakfast and then checked the mail.  Only four items in the mailbox.  One I could already see was some invitation to refinance the house.  I sighed and ripped it then tossed it into the recycle bin, refinance THAT.  The next one was an update about my retirement funds.  Woo-hoo, let’s see how that’s going! I couldn’t make sense of the summary.  I tried turning the paper upside down, thinking it would help, but it looked the same.  Anyway, I figured it probably was saying I did not have enough to retire.  On to envelope number three: an offer for a credit line.  I held it for a moment, then tossed it in the recycle bin too.  The last item left was a postcard sized invitation.  A workshop on Saturday from 9 – 11am and I would walk away with: knowledge about how to apply online, job descriptions to make sure this was the place for me, and job opportunities. I clipped it to my fridge magnets, it had to be a sign.  The invitation came from the USPS.

You are a Writer

You are a writer if…

5.) You think the characters you write about are real

You are sadly mistaken. MINE are real.  I eat breakfast with them everyday and they cheer me up when I get home from work. At night, we sip tea together and when I fall asleep with my laptop in bed, they tuck me in.

4.) All you see are stories.  And all the people you meet are like characters from a book or you think about them as potential characters for your stories/books

Hmmmm, this one is tough… Are you telling me that when I sit outside the coffee shop and “people watch” that I am actually looking at them as characters for a story? Or that I am thinking of stories to put these people into?  You mean that I am constantly humming up stories as life passes me by?  Are you actually indicating that I pay attention to the world around me and that I notice all the stuff going on like the way that lady’s hair bobs up and down as she walks or the way that old guy has a funny little limp cuz maybe he had a door slammed on his ankle when he was a child..?  What the hell are you getting at?  This is some freaky shit! No way in hell is my mind as convoluted as THAT!! Oh hell no, you did not just insinuate that my mind is a freak show!! The circus did not come into my town!! (Deep breaths, shake off some shivers, close eyes and rub temples, lots of sighs) But, yes, that does, happen, sometimes, here and there…on occasion, possibly… EVERY DAY, ALL DAY!!

3.) You read more than the average human being

Like how much more?  Can you please quantify that for me?

Like you don’t shower, eat, or get out of bed just cuz you wanna keep reading! You don’t cook, clean, or even leave the damn house so as not to interrupt your reading! You stay in your damn pajamas all day, barely even getting up to use the bathroom and that’s only because nature has really got a hold of you then!! You don’t answer the door, you don’t pick up the phone, you don’t text back, you don’t even click on the TV! You stay up hella late, reading, reading, reading and then you DREAM about it!  You go so far as if to feel like you are LIVING in the damn book! You neglect the world around you, you don’t think about your loved ones…(whimpers)

Mmmm, I see…well, I guess with that kind of description…CHECK!

2.) You have stories inside you

Ha, ha, ha, ha! Nope, you are not getting me on this one! All I have in me right now is my breakfast: one egg, fake bacon, and a slice of whole wheat with peanut butter.  I drank some hot tea, but it warmed up me too much that I started sweatin’, feeling like I was starting to cook from the inside.  I thought the sweat coming out of me was like little tea drops, jasmine flavor because that is what I was drinking.  One of them slid down my forehead, like going down a slide and probably yelled, “Yippeee!” as it cruised off my nose and splashed on to my hands.  Then it waved at me with its little tea drop fingers curling up and down, a big tea smile on its face…Oh…FUCK…

1.) You neglect your hygiene when THE writing has a hold on you

Just so you know, you are really creeping me out right now

Oh, how’s that?

Neglect hygiene? REALLY?

Yes, really

I am a very clean person, you know that.  I can’t go without brushing my teeth

Have you brushed them today?

No, not yet, I just ate, remember?

Uh-huh, so when did you shower?

…I will get to it…today for sure

Did you know it’s almost afternoon and you are still in PJs?

They’re comfortable dammit! You think I wanna be all up in here wearing a suit?  A freakin’ power suit right now?  You gotta be kiddin’ me!!

Sure, so how’s your hair?  When did you last put on makeup? Have you thought about jewelry? Got a bra on? Are you still wearing yesterday’s underwear?

FUUUUUUUCK! How you bug!! Who the hell are you??

Only the voice inside your head

Well, get the fuck out! What the hell are you doing in there?

Just being the other sign that you are a writer

No, I am not! Get outta here! Take all your crap and get outta here!

You really want that?  You know what will happen if I go…

Yeah, I know exactly what will happen! It’ll be QUIET!!!

…Oh I guess it really left.  Wow, this is nice.  Silence. Now I can enjoy my own thoughts… Uh, hello, brain?  Are you there brain? Total silence, weird…Wow, can’t remember the last time it was like this…blank page on the screen…Hmmm, I wonder what I …

Should write about??

AAAHHHHHHH!!! You again!! Dammit, dammit, dammit!!

Accept it, you are a writer.

Born for It

There are people who live and breathe principalship. They wear the position as if they were born for it, which they probably were. I always admire them from afar, wondering if they like waking up early in the morning (which I hear happens around 4am) and then staying late for all those school events.  I always wonder how they keep up the energy to flutter around the school and deal with all the crap that lands on their laps.  How do they  resume a “normal” life after the school day has ended…doesn’t the position just consume them?

Anyway, I compiled a top ten list of why I admire school administrators:

10.) They can sleep at night, even though they know that they are in charge of hundreds of lives

9.) The complaints. From. Everyone. Students. Parents. Guardians. Aunts. Grandpas. Teachers. Teacher Assistants. Staff members. Community. Volunteers. District Office Personnel.

8.) The ongoing investigations of who hit who

7.) Managing the school budget

6.) Hard conversations with teachers (about their instruction)

5.) There’s no Administrator’s How-To Manual

4.) Sub shortage

3.) The real lock down

2.) They have to be great…EVERY DAY

1.) They don’t get a break or a lunch (and if they do, it’s the same stuff the kids ate earlier that day) and they never get to use the bathroom when they need it…

With that said, kudos to all you school admins, I am a big fan of yours and admire your spirit.  Keep at it, because if you don’t, there won’t be people like me to write about it.

Needs

I have written about why I write, but today I saw that it is not about why, but the need to write.  I have all kinds of reasons to satisfy why I write, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I NEED to write.

I need to write because:

  1. I am alive
  2. It is typically the only way that my voice gets heard
  3. A therapist is too expensive, but writing is free and in my world, I need all the therapy I can get
  4. The thoughts in my head deserve to live on paper.  They are precious and as unique as me.  I owe it to them to get them on the page
  5. Life is confusing and it doesn’t make sense until I write
  6. One day I will not be here, but my writing will
  7. No one else has my life so I must share it
  8. When I don’t, I can feel God’s hot breath on my neck and I feel guilty
  9. A child, somewhere, must know that I feel what they feel and that there is hope
  10. I am Mexican and others have to know that I am as human as them

Writing is life.

Letter of Recommendation

To Whom It May Concern,

It is a pleasure to be writing a letter on behalf of my student self. I have known myself in the capacity of student for the past 13 years.  During this time I have developed outstanding skills that have allowed me to demonstrate that I am ready for a real writing life.

As a young student, in my early years of education, I was taught to be quiet and quickly hushed by my teachers any time I blurted out an idea that was entirely my own.  And if I dared ask questions that were not reflected on the daily schedule, I was given the ever frightening “teacher look.”  This resulted in my learning to not think too much and to be more of a listener.  I believe that a writing life would encourage me to do more of my own deep thinking and possibly even ponder some of those questions that still come to my mind.

Middle school proved to be an even more delightful experience as I learned about writing for purposes that exist only within the insides of a school.  I never looked forward to writing those cumbersome essays about the theme in a book or what current social problem is undermining society or proving my point about how the characters were similar in blah blah book.  These assignments taught me to not care and just do minimal work.  I was further enlightened by these assigned essays as I learned that an audience doesn’t exist.  The only person who read this crap was the teacher who then gave it back to me with half hearted suggestions of how to fix it. I never got  to see if my words had any power.  I am most ready for a writing life.

Then the shit hit the fan in high school.  This was truly the place where I saw that writing is a lockstep process and you shall not be creative or step out of the one damn genre you are writing in for if you do, the wrath of hell will come upon you and your writing will be scored harshly.  Don’t use creative ways to engage your reader in the opening, that is gibberish just get on with it and state the damn thesis.  Don’t put in anything like dialogue or a Yelp review because the teacher has to score all these bloody papers and adding extra stuff makes it hard to grade.  Just keep it simple.  Don’t mix genres. Don’t be creative. Don’t think. Don’t be a writer.

My student self is now ready to apply for a real writing life so that the mysteries of what real writers do can be revealed.  All these years of not thinking while I wrote in a robotic fashion has shown that I am yearning to master this skill of writing because I can’t even produce this letter (my older brother is typing it for me as I say it out loud – why didn’t anyone tell me about how I can rehearse my writing by saying it first?).  I highly recommend my student self for a position in the real writing life.  If you have any questions, I can be contacted at the number below.

Sincerely,

Deesmaid Stoodent

Laura & Lorena: Inspiring Teachers to Write