That depth and breadth of mind that I loved in Barack Obama is what I glimpsed in Cory Booker at the DNC last year. It has nothing to do with the color of one's skin. It has everything to do with who they are as human beings, and how they articulate their beliefs and their vision.
I'm only on page 47, and already I've highlighted a number of things that resonate for me, not so much on a political level as on a human level. This is the passage that is reverberating through me these days, and it's a paraphrasing of what his mother said to him:
...the world needs the full measure of your faith, your courage, your boldest thoughts, your most inspiring dreams.
Right in the center of that you'll find the word "courage."
This is the time of year when we often take stock of ourselves, and start thinking about what we'll do different in the new year. When I read those words, I find myself feeling the need to reboot as a writer. What that will mean for me, I don't know. What I do know is that courage will be the essential ingredient in the mix.
I also ran across a journal I kept for a class when I was at Naropa, in which I shared this: I found that a lot of anger has come up...In talking with my teacher, she suggested I try not to identify it or fix it, but just to be with it when it comes up, and let my body work with it and through it. That, of course, is very uncomfortable...
It seems that we are required to bear witness to much that feels unbearable. And there are, in fact, times when we must try to fix things in our world, and participate rather that simply observe. But in the times when we can do nothing except be present or turn away, we need to be present. It's like going to a funeral and feeling unable to find anything to say. The words don't matter. Our wordless presence says it all - we are willing to be there to support someone we care about. That is love.
Wednesday, December 6 update: I heard from my friend, who along with her partner and animals was evacuated yesterday. They are safe, though the fire line is approximately a mile from their home and the fire is 0% contained as of this morning. The winds have died down overnight, but are expected to increase again. Yesterday, according to one news source, the fire burned at an acre a second, the equivalent of Central Park in New York being consumed in 15 minutes.
The fall of 2004 was what was called my tangaryo practice period. Simply put, it was my first practice period, and I stayed in Tassajara from late September 2004 through early April 2005 without ever leaving. My teacher suggested it; it was common practice in Tassajara's early days, but I was the only person during that time period who never left. Thanksgiving wasn't quite the halfway point, but it was a much-needed break in the schedule.
Thanksgiving 2005 I was on the kitchen crew, and in the middle of a drama about when, where, and whether I was going to be ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest (I was, in January 2006). I was what they call the fukuten in the kitchen. The fukuten is what you might call the kitchen manager. I supervised the crew, made sure the food got out on time, and occasionally did some cooking myself. I had been on the crew in the spring practice period, and during the summer guest season I'd been a guest cook, so I knew the kitchen well. I had turned 50 in October, in some ways was as happy as I'd ever been. However, the drama around ordination and the drama in the kitchen made it a stressful time. This was easily one of my most difficult practice periods, and that was one Thanksgiving that I barely ate before bolting to the bathhouse.
It was to be seven years before my next Thanksgiving at Tassajara. In the interim, I'd left San Francisco Zen Center to get a Master of Divinity degree at Naropa University, and spent a few years with my dad while my mother was dying of Alzheimer's. I returned to City Center (the San Francisco practice center connected with Tassajara) as tenzo, and went to Tassajara in May of 2013. I was still there for Thanksgiving, not in the kitchen, and actually sat down and ate the whole Thanksgiving dinner. I did, however, still make it to the bathhouse for my traditional Thanksgiving pilgrimage.
Brenda Rooney worked at the Stratford Festival in PR/Marketing, and we met when her boss asked her to take me to the green room for coffee. I’d written a research paper for law school on the three Stratfords, and continued to visit with some of the folks I’d met during the process. Brenda’s husband, Robert, was an actor as well as a directing intern at the Festival, they had two daughters, and Robert’s brother Andrew lived with them as the girls’ caretaker.
When Brenda invited me to their house to visit, I had no idea it was to open the door to one of the most significant relationships of my life – not only my friendship with Brenda, but also my relationship with every member of the family. I arrived, that first time, to find that Brenda wasn’t even there. Instead, Andrew let me in and assured me she’d show up eventually. He gave me a cup of tea, and I met Rebecca and Caitlin. Sure enough, Brenda did appear sometime in the next half hour, and it was chaotic as both girls wanted to share things with their mother, and Andrew had news of his own to pass on.
I never did meet Robert that day, though I met Tottenham Hotspurs, their cat. The chaos meant that I blended into the woodwork, something that appealed to me at that point in my life. I enjoyed it, and eventually did get some time to talk with Brenda. Over the years, when I stayed with them for several days, I would sometimes go to bed down in the basement (in Oakville) and wake in the morning to find one or more additional guests sleeping on the sofas in the living room. Their generosity made everyone feel welcome - it was open house for many of us, and I felt incredibly lucky.
From Stratford, to Oakville, to Quebec, I went wherever the Rooneys lived, and from the start, developed an individual relationship with each member of the family. At one point in Oakville, Andrew was working, and Brenda and Robert were putting together a CD launch to support voter education in South Africa, so they were working non-stop. I took a week’s vacation and went up to drive the kids to school stuff, cook the meals, and even do the laundry, so they could focus completely on their work.
Brenda and Robert were the most politically active people I’d ever met. I did a few things in high school and college, but they opened my eyes to the world and what one or two people could do to make a difference. They were involved in the Arts Against Apartheid movement in Canada. Robert directed the big benefit/fundraiser concerts in Toronto, and Brenda did the PR for them. I happened to be with Brenda when we saw the film of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. She wept, and I wanted to, but felt I hadn’t earned that right. The CD I mentioned earlier raised more than million dollars for voter education for the first election in South Africa in which the black population could vote.
Robert, sadly, died in January 2016. Brenda continues with her work and her family. Their impact continues in me, and through me to all of you who read this. None of us knows what impact our lives and our writing will have on the world. We can only live and write and love and breathe, and know that everything we do matters. Thanks to all of you for what you give in your lives and in your writing.
Strange, in a way, since I only met Mr. Rooney once, and that, briefly. I was at Steeler's training camp in Latrobe, dropping off some jerseys and footballs to be signed for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. Mr. Rooney was there when I dropped them off, and came over to chat with me. There is an unfortunate tendency for me to insert my foot into my mouth at moments like this, and sure enough, I managed to say something that was embarrassingly inaccurate.
As the weather gets colder, including last weekend when it got down to 19 degrees Farenheit, winter is unmistakably on its way. Do I miss the ocean? You bet. And I have no regrets. I'm home. I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do - write, run workshops, and starting in February, teaching a weekly version of Gary's curriculum here in Pittsburgh. Thanks, Mr. Rooney - for your service, your kindness, your inspiration...
In the past week I learned about the death of Janet Chapman, who came to her first Writers Retreat Workshop the year after Gary died. My niece, Anna, came to visit my dad and I while she attended a wedding nearby. I spent all of Saturday (and a little bit of Friday) watching the first Breeder's Cup weekend held at Del Mar Race Track (built by Bing Crosby and friends). My sister-in-law, Hope (Anna's mom) had a book reading and signing for her third Christian romance novel, which was held at our new local bookstore. And in the wider world, there was another senseless shooting, today is election day, kids went trick-or-treating for Halloween, retired mare Songbird sold for $9.5 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sales, and more men were accused of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
I could walk to the library from our house on Homer Avenue, and often did. Those were the years when a first-grader could safely go out for hours with friends, even sometimes alone, and a parent didn't need to worry. Well, except for the time I got caught in a thunderstorm and tried to shelter under a huge pine tree with some boys. The woman who lived in the house with the tree invited us inside, knowing how dangerous it was, and I said yes. The boys ran home.
My heart aches with grief over some of the events of the past weeks. And when my heart aches, I turn to books for solace. This morning I was browsing USA Today online and ran across an article on Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, on display in the New York Public Library. It was the first time I'd seen the originals, and as the writer of the article said, they looked loved.
It isn't that books can change or take away our grief or sadness. They might provide a brief escape, but we do always finish the story. It's more that they bring us into contact with others. The writer, who understood us without ever knowing us. The characters, who felt so much as we did. And other readers, who find a similar joy in discovering the same beauty.
So when I walked in that bookstore and smelled the books, I was back in the library of my childhood with Lad and Black Beauty. I was back on the street, peering into the jungle of mystery on the corner across from the cemetery, imagining what was inside the green branches.
This will be a fairly short post this week, as I'm in the midst of our fall workshop in Haverford, PA. I arrived a day early, and sometime in the first half of the Steeler game Sunday I made my way to Kelly's Pub up on Lancaster to grab a bite and watch the game. As it turned out, a gang of Steeler fans were there, celebrating someone's birthday, and I unwittingly became part of the party, even signing the birthday boy's t-shirt.
This past weekend I was visited by three spirits. I don't consider myself an Ebenezer Scrooge, or at least not the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, and my three spirits weren't ghosts. They are very much alive, and their aliveness is a part of why they spoke to me.
Mr. Wouk is a gifted storyteller who held me enthralled through City Boy, The Caine Mutiny, and Youngblood Hawke. However, it was when I read Winds of War and War and Remembrance that I was lost in wonder, and at times horror, at the worlds he created. The two books cover the lead up to WWII and the entire war, and until I read those books, I didn't grasp what the words "World War" meant. He wrote from a wide and deep perspective, and every time I re-read those books I am awed by their vast scope and their intimacy.
A friend (with whom I shared the books) and I were talking at a crowded dinner table one night, discussing the characters in the books and what was happening with them. Another friend, overhearing, interrupted and said, "Who are these people? Your family?" We burst out laughing and explained, and later agreed that our engagement with the characters was unusual, and the author deserved a lot of credit for that.
I watched Mr. Wouk in an interview in July 2017 with CBS Sunday Morning, and noticed that even at 102, there was a twinkle in his eye, and an irrepressible energy that made me smile. He was one of the most alive human beings on the planet, and his work has been an enormous part of my love of story.
It is a time of transition for Helio, and for me. He is moving from 20 years with Team Penske in Indy Car to the Penske Sports Car program. While it seems clear he'd like to have stayed in the Indy Car program, he gracefully acceded to Roger Penske's request that he move to the other program. And in his first race, he won the pole (meaning they start first) for his three-man team, and the team had a podium finish, coming in third overall.
I've written of my own transition, of moving across the country, leaving my life in California to return to a new life in Pennsylvania. If I can handle my transition with a fraction of Helio's grace, I will be doing well.
While I can't say I see myself as Wonder Woman, one of the great gifts in life is not necessarily to have the life you think you should. As Emilio Estevez's character says in his film The Way, "You don't choose a life, you live it."
My three spirits have all shared something about how they've lived their lives with me, and now I share it with you. Like all of us, they have each had their griefs, their losses, and their heartbreaks. And still, the joyful glint is there in their eyes, in their being. May we all live our lives with that joyful glint, and share it with the world. The world could use a little joy.
At the same time, you are thrilled to be at this workshop, with an opportunity to get feedback (which you are sure will be wonderful) from a writing teacher whose work you respect, and whose books have helped many an aspiring novelist. You want to bask in the opportunity to spend this time completely focused on your own work-in-progress and not have to worry about cooking your own meals and then doing the dishes. Here, you are a writer.
Without any maneuvering, the workshop leader sits next to you at dinner, and appears to be amused by your witty repartee. Everything seems to be working as planned.
A funny thing happens after dinner. The group gathers for the opening session, and lo and behold, you are the first one to share your book title and the hook you have crafted. Suddenly you discover that you don’t have a protagonist, you have a victim. To be a protagonist the main character has to act, rather than simply be acted upon. Yours doesn’t act, she reacts.
You also find out that your book title, which is your protagonist/victim’s first name (evocative, you felt), tells the reader nothing. And you realize that if all of this is true, you have to throw out everything you’ve written to date and start over.
After the session is over, you realize you have a choice to make. You can crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and wail that everyone is just jealous of your talents and it isn’t fair. Or you can face the fact that you are here to learn, and the first lesson was a tough one to swallow. You came to see what the experts could teach you, and now you have to decide if you are willing to be taught.
Feedback is one of the most difficult things to accept as a writer. It’s easy to convince yourself that the person questioning your choice of word, or character, or storyline, doesn’t understand your intention. And if they don’t, it isn’t your fault they’re dense. You’ve labored over this work for years, and you know you’ve honed it brilliantly.
Or have you? It can be enormously confusing to go to a workshop, sit through classes with one or more instructors, meet one-on-one with several mentors/editors, and have critique sessions with your peers, with everyone telling you something different. After a few days you are reeling from the contradictory suggestions, and it’s tempting to ignore all of it and go your own way.
…if you put aside your bruised ego long enough to look at it clearly, you might realize several different people all seemed to be asking what your main character wants, what her story arc is. And almost everyone commented on how they wanted to know more about your villain, but didn’t seem enthusiastic about your protagonist. So perhaps there are a few things that keep cropping up that might be worth your attention.
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop