Weekly reading 5

The post is late but the material is still worth a read…

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• “University Students Want Free Tuition For Blacks As Reparations For Slavery” by David Krayden in dailycaller.com: “The Western Kentucky University student government passed a resolution, 19-10, that advocates the recognition of slavery as a “debt that will never be paid” and offer free tuition to black students as compensation.”

• “This Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter Activists Will Give More Than 30 Women Their Freedom” by Dani McClain at The Nation: “Black people didn’t wait for an Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the Civil War to act on their own behalf. … Instead, they sometimes bought their own and each other’s freedom, and in doing so left a blueprint for how to directly challenge mass criminalization today, even as policy battles are in progress.”

• “This racial justice jam, or White folks trying to figure it out” by Shay Stewart-Bouley on her blog, black girl in maine: “Racism in this country is largely a white problem, but white people solving it alone won’t work.”

• “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope” by William Black in The Atlantic: “These symbols have roots in real historical struggles—specifically, in the case of the watermelon, white people’s fear of the emancipated black body.”

THINK ABOUT IT:
“A lot of times equality can feel like oppression for those who are losing their advantage, but that’s not a reason we shouldn’t fight for equality.” — Western Kentucky University student senator Lily Nellans

New! Chapbook! Yay!

In the fall of 2016, leading up to the presidential election, I started #28daysoflove as an experiment to combat the environment of fear, anger, and hopelessness that was so prevalent on social media. For four weeks, I posted personal essays on the theme of love on my on Facebook page. I didn’t know what to expect, going into it, but found that the more open and raw I could be, the more human, genuine, and accepting the response was. Through those posts I learned a lot about myself and my desire to approach the world with an open heart. Plus, a loose community formed around the posts that felt more rich and real than my average social media interactions. I collected 18 of the essays into this 52-page, self-published chapbook, It All Comes Rushing Back.
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Top tips for being a rockstar

This essay was originally posted at Booker Like a Hooker.

Stage setup

Stage setup

I probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) advise anyone on being a rockstar. I realize this might come as a surprise since I just published the novel How to Talk to Rockstars, thus asserting my own expertise on the subject. That, and the book is based in part on my own experience as an arts and entertainment writer and editor. This August will mark 12 years officially interviewing touring musicians in a full-time-employment-with-official business-cards capacity.

If you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (that’s the number of hours of “deliberate practice” it takes to become an expert in any field), then I’ve got more than twice that under my belt — even after you subtract lunch breaks and watching back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. (For the record, I do not watch back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. Who would do that? Not this girl.)

But a 2014 Princeton study supposedly debunked Gladwell’s theory. I’m no expert on rockstars with or without Princeton (or Gladwell) — not on being one, not on talking to one. How to talk to rockstars (the idea, not my novel … well, maybe my novel, too) is actually an enduring mystery in my life. And I’m OK with that.

Birdhouse

Birdhouse

In fact, one of the things that keeps me excited about my day job, more than a decade in, is that the creative process in its many genres remains mysterious, elusive, wondrous and inspiring. It’s the wilderness in this world of instant accessibility, constant contact and utter disconnect. Art is the one place where we’re way off the map and, at the same time, completely connected to our source. It’s the antithesis of social media without being antisocial. It’s where we’re most vulnerable, most human, most true.

So maybe that’s what I would say to any would-be rockstars out there. Be more human. Be more of a conduit to that wilderness. Be more authentic; be a beacon to those of us seeking authenticity.

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

I would also say I know that’s terrifying. Creativity is a scary prospect. Writing a book sure is. To be alone with the blank page is to stare into the abyss. That’s actually thing I’ve said dozens of times for dramatic effect. And I’m probably not the first person to have said it — it sounds suspiciously like something I probably heard from one of my MFA professors and managed to co-opt by virtue of a foggy memory. But lately looking into the abyss is less dramatic and more … something. Not quite comforting but, like, what’s so terrible about an abyss? It’s not necessarily a black hole or dark matter or one of those “Star Trek” anomalies. It’s just the unknown. And life experience, 20,000-plus hours in, has taught me that most unknowns, once addressed, are completely navigable.

Music, however, refuses to be completely navigable. It remains — at its best, at its richest — unexpected, emotional, surprising and overwhelming. It’s a shot to the heart, a jolt to the psyche. It’s a time machine back to who we once were, a post card from past selves and a missive to future versions of ourself. It has the power to render us, in the moment, undone. It contains the ability to recast us, for the length of a song, cooler than we really are.

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I would say to future rockstars, go there. Go farther. Dare into the abyss, into the wilderness, into the world beyond the world. Lead the mission; strike out on a hero’s journey; lean out over the precipice and don’t fear the fall.

The world needs rockstars. Not big egos. That’s not what I’m talking about. But seekers, seers, those who walk on stage, larger than life, and remind us of our own inner starpower. And, for that matter, I’d say that anyone who accepts this mission — to be more true, more human, more creative and more of a light into the dark heart of our collective artistic source — is already a rockstar. No tour bus, logo t-shirts or fan base required.

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

According to the tag on my Yogi Tea bag, “You will always live happy if you live with heart.” And it’s a nice (if vague) idea, but I have to disagree. Here’s the thing: while I prefer terms like “soulful” and “an examined life,” I suspect that they share DNA with living with heart. And none of those experiences is particularly happy. Horizon broadening, mind-expanding, life-changing and growth-inducing, yes. All of which can lead to a better quality of being, a greater capacity for love, understanding, and even heartfulness. But growth is hard and challenging and often real soulful living makes the heart ache more than smile.

That’s not a bad thing. Personally — and I realize this is not going to be a popular opinion — I think happiness (along with fun) is overrated. It’s a wonderful side effect, but should never be the goal. And yet there’s this kind of first world idea that we all deserve unlimited quantities of happiness (and fun) and anything that is not happy-making is to be avoided. That might be oversimplifying the situation, but I feel like our collective march toward 24/7 entertainment, gadgetry, consumerism, single-use, throw-away, increased stimulus, newer, faster, louder, shinier and more is a kind of kid-in-candy store approach to being.

Being a kid in a candy story is fun! And then you have a sugar crash and everything gets really ugly.

I’m not against social networking. I don’t crochet my own pants out of recycled earbud chords. But of all the apps I’ve installed on my phone, my favorite is the Insight Timer I use for the mini-meditation sessions I squeeze in between the obstacle course activities of my daily to-do lists. The app does nothing but count down from 10 or 15 minutes and sound a soft chime when time is up. That, and it tells me how many other people around the world were meditating with me, using the same timer. That’s pretty cool, to think that for 10 silent minutes I’m in community with 500 or so complete strangers who share my goal of stilling my chattering brain and carving out a little space among the clutter.

Meditating hasn’t made me happier (though I’m pretty sure that’s a major selling point of the current mindfulness trend). It has given me some tools to calm down, take account of my current situation and ditch a few to-do list items that maybe don’t really need to be done. It’s given me a little perspective and, more importantly, a kind of shelter in the storm of changes, excitement, discouragement and other swells.

Publishing a book hasn’t made me happier, either. That’s been a dream of mine for nearly 20 years and to finally realize it has been pretty incredible. It’s been a roller coaster ride — thrilling, rewarding, and a great sense of accomplishment. But it’s also come with an intense amount of work that I never could have predicted, and its own kind of hard knocks. Anyone who’s ever attempted to learn anything knows that success/defeat ratio. Very few people get good at anything without sucking first, and it takes a special kind of courage to persevere.

Perseverance is its own reward. Again, it’s not necessarily a happy thing. Summiting a peak is a triumph — often at the cost of scraped knuckles and utter exhaustion. Most marathoners, upon crossing the finish line, look more like they want to vomit, die or punch someone than do a happy dance. But no one ever ran a race to get happy. We run to get healthy, to prove it to ourselves that we can accomplish a goal, to compete, maybe to win, but mostly just to finish.

I understand why my tea tag doesn’t say, “You’ll probably finish more stuff if you live with heart.” Or, “You’ll learn more in life if you put yourself out there, risk defeat and care more about the process that what kind of selfie you can post on Facebook.” The bubbly quick-fix of “Happy” makes better marketing sense than the dogged determination of “Hang in there.”

But hanging in brings better results. Hanging in gets us all closer to the finish line, and — more importantly — it keeps us on the journey. Plus, sometimes (many times!) happiness happens along the way, like a good tail wind, like a cheering section, like a double rainbow out of a storm-dark sky.

Going solo

Going solo

It’s the part of winter where winter really should just start thinking about being over. I realize I can’t complain too much — I grew up in Western New York where winter was real and lasted for a solid seven month. This year, from what I hear, people in that area have gotten so much snow they had to literally tunnel out of their houses. In Asheville it’s been two weeks of periodic snow and ice storms, and several days in a row of sub-zero temperatures. Wah.

Still, I’m over it.

But the good thing about winter is it’s an excuse to hunker down and get some work done. Right after Christmas I ambitiously launched into a new project — a first draft of a historical novel. I decided just to write fast and sloppy, get the story on (virtual) paper and fill in with research and artful turns of phrase later. I haven’t gone out much since December. I haven’t seen many movies or bands. I did write 60,000 words in two months.

That kind of productivity is wonderful, but it comes at a price: Social life. Being part of the world. Having a conversation with people other than the fictional characters in my mind. The more traction I get with my writing, the fewer invites I get to parties. The fewer people I have to call just for, you know, whatever.

Books are wonderful. Writing is the best thing. But it’s also lonely.

There is the argument — I know, I’ve made it — that when one writes, one is in the company of all who write. It’s kind of like my Insight Timer app, a clever tool that rings a gong after I’ve meditated for five or ten minutes. (Which I manage to do all of twice a month.) When I set the timer it tells me how many people worldwide are currently meditating with the app. I just checked and right now there are 440. It’s cool to be able to drop into that kind of community, even if I never see or speak to those people. I feel like we’re in this together. And I bet if there are 440 meditating, there are about ten times that many people hunched in front of laptops trying to come up with the next chapter or page or sentence.

It’s cool to be able to drop into the writing community, too, but I bet at least 95 percent of them feel sort of lonely, sort of disconnected and sort of like all those people who aren’t trying to write a novel are having way more fun.

But for me, when I walk away, the character stay with me. That’s optimal. That’s how I know it’s working. I keep hearing the voice. Threads of the story keep unspooling. I watch a movie or go to a show and it’s okay … but I’d rather be home with my computer.

This is a particular type of madness.

I’ve actually thought it would be helpful to start therapy simultaneously with a book project … but the talking about writing would distract from the writing. Except then one finds oneself with 60,000 words in a document and no one to tell.

I guess that’s why there are blogs.

Montezuma’s revenge

Montezuma’s revenge

You don’t get sick all at once in Mexico. It happens in stages, which means even though you went knowing how common it was to get sick — traveler’s digestive disorders, as one website delicately puts it — you can remain in denial that it could happen to you. First there’s the vaguest sense of unease, and the sudden lack of interest in the sandwich you just ordered. And then the slight queasiness. But that can be attributed to the crowds and the sun. It’s carnival in Mérida and the streets are bottlenecked with parade floats and dancers and blasting music. There are swarms of people and vendors and the police who are less like police and more like a SWAT team with armored trucks and automatic weapons. Clowns, balloons, assault rifles. Old ladies in embroidered smocks, children in strollers, teenagers with complicated haircuts and pointy-toed shoes.

You don’t think you’ll go down. You’ve been fine up till that point — jogging, getting enough rest, wearing sunscreen, eating healthy foods. If you do get sick it’s because of the green juice, which you bought to feel even healthier. So to be punished for that is unthinkable, especially when everywhere you look there are buckets of beer and meat bring shaved from a rotisserie. Margarita after margarita melty with crushed ice. People making terrible choices in what they imbibe, not to mention the angry sunburns of the tourists. But if you even think of the rotisseries with their cones of sizzling, slow-spinning pork, you feel dizzy with a deep-gut knowledge that something isn’t right.

Still, even if you do get sick it’s a matter of a trip the the bathroom and you packed Pepto in your first aid kit. You look for shade, sip from your already too-warm bottle or water, daydream of iced drinks. You get through the day, walking maybe 20 blocks to a restaurant you read about in the guidebook. It’s set in a crumbling mansion with a courtyard strung in fairy lights. It should be enchanting and maybe it will be later in memory. Maybe in the few photos taken of you, though already you’re grimacing, your forehead beaded and your hoodie zipped against a phantom chill. You order Enchiladas and a beer. The beer is cold but makes you break into a clammy sweat. Food smells are dismal: spoiled, overcooked, graying on plates. You shrink from your enchiladas when they arrive and walk to the bathroom instead.

At least you can still walk slowly. There’s no rush. A kind of creeping dread. Maybe one trip will be enough. Maybe you can return to your dinner.

But of course you can’t. The sickness progresses faster on the walk home. You stop at a store for saltines and Gatorade, you barely make it to the toilet at the bed and breakfast. There’s a complicated situation with the door lock, a dark garden to navigate, the small room that was so quaint and cheerful but is now only way too far from home. You lay, sweat-drenched and shaking, on one side and then the other. You try to find a sweet spot where you can drift off to sleep and dream of something other than seasick waves and slow-turning meat.

You do not die, but you almost wish you would. Only almost. In retrospect it’s terrible, but still. It’s not cancer or torture or incarceration or the myriad violences other people survive. It’s just bacteria and your body’s overly-dramatic reaction to that bacteria. You leave Mérida, hunched and pale, hair plastered to head, curled into a cab. You curl into a hard plastic chair at the bus station and then into a cushiony seat on the first class bus, blasting AC and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You sleep in fits, waking to a sharp slash of headache. As much as you feel like you could throw up again, you don’t.

The sick comes on slowly and recedes with even less speed. Days pass before you dare to eat a meal and weeks pass before you can attempt anything with spice or character. Months before you can think of Mexico. Years before you can consider another trip. Before you can convince yourself that you’re smarter, better prepared, perhaps you’ve built up immunity, at least you’ll avoid the green smoothie.

Just beer and fried tortillas, a frat boy diet. It’s only for a week. Save your risk-taking for morning jogs through pretty towns with their cenotes and churches, their broken sidewalks and shy stray dogs.

Virtual city walk

Virtual city walk

I’ve been working on an article this week about Peter Turchi‘s new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic. In it, he collages his own essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations — and lots of puzzles, including some specially composed for the book. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” Turchi says.

What’s so interesting to me about A Muse and a Maze is how writing can be informed by other artistic disciplines. “Other narrative forms like film and plays offer pretty direct inspiration,” Turchi says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.”

With that in mind, I came across this album, Citywalk from the Isolation Studies series by Night’s Bright Colors — the project of my supertalented friend Jason Smith. It’s study of inspiration — music borne of street scenes and sounds. Each track could be a photograph, or a haiku, or a watercolor. And all of those possibilities are somehow compacted into perfect microcosms of moments that expand and contract with the breath and the day, with how light unfurls and moves across the room, with the openness of imagination and the closing of the eyes.

These are songs I could live in and write in. They ask for stories to be written of their distinct worlds — though I’m sure each contains its own nucleus of a story already intact and waiting to be discovered.