Keep A Fire Burning in Your Eye

DZOVKGC7BHQGAYKU2WWP24WCJHUBNRO7Many years ago, in my first professional incarnation as an adjunct professor of writing at San Diego State University, I used to break the ice in the first week of class by asking my students to write about where their wisdom came from. It could be their grandmother’s common sense, insights from a runner’s high, or the words of a poet. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to know and wanted them to tell each other.

I had forgotten about that assignment until this morning, when I read David Brooks’ column “The Other Education” in the New York Times. He wrote about how as a college student, the discovery of Bruce Springsteen’s music was like a parallel educational track for him, the beginning of his “emotional education.”
“We don’t usually think of this second education,” Brooks writes. “For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.”

Indeed. It’s where much of our wisdom comes from.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be an English major, as I was, you’re not likely to have spent much time in college curled up in bed with a poetry anthology. You had homework to do. For me, novels and poems were my homework, and my job was to understand them well. The time for college to feel like work would come later as I pursued my master’s and doctoral degree, but I am still so grateful for those undergraduate years, when wisdom washed over me and crept into my emerging consciousness, shaping me for a lifetime more than I ever guessed at the time.

“This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works,” Brooks goes on. “In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.” Quite different from the parallel track Brooks describes, where knowledge “comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.”

I don’t remember any specifics of the answers my students gave, except, for some reason, an impassioned argument about the greatness of the band The Tubes a shaggy-haired freshman offered one semester. But I do remember what I told them. For me at that moment my greatest source of wisdom was the singer/songwriter Jackson Browne. Coincidentally, just a day or two ago Pandora Radio chose his “For a Dancer” as a song I might like, and I was surprised at how even today, a voice of someone my own age could come out of the past and say things that are just as true to me today.

“Keep a fire burning in your eye,” he sang. “Pay attention to the open sky. You never know what will be coming down.”

Plenty has come hailing down in my life since then, but nothing that has left me unable eventually to dance through life again. “Dancing our sorrow away, no matter what fate chooses to play. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”

I love the way Browne describes the need to learn from and remain connected to others, but to remember the importance of our own self, our own unique contribution. “Just do the steps that you’ve been shown,by everyone you’ve ever known, until the dance becomes your very own. No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown, in the end there is one dance you’ll do alone.”

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around–
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know.

You’re a wise one, Jackson Browne. You always were. And I’m still listening.


“Loan Days”

Last week I found myself dragging a bit at the three-quarter mark in the semester, and I kept thinking about how much I wished the end of the week would arrive, so I could be off for Thanksgiving Week.  Now it is the Monday of said week, right at the point that I would be walking into my first class.  It is indeed nice to be at home, ensconsed in all the projects I haven’t had time to get to.  And tomorrow, I’ll be playing tennis right at the time I would normally be in class, and that sounds better yet. 

And, I tell myself, when this week is over, there are only two more weeks of instruction befor finals, and then, a six-week break between semesters.  It sounds so great I can hardly stand it, but then I catch myself.

In a few weeks I will be sixty. The idea has definitely taken residence in my head that life is not endless, and even if I live heartily, happily, and healthily into my nineties (as I fully intend to do!) anyone my age is still most of the way through what the author of Beowulf so aptly called these “loan days” here on earth.

So this is the moment that I hit myself upside the head and ask “what are you thinking?”  I should never wish that time would pass more quickly, because I can’t have it back. Instead, I should train myself to stop that line of thought, take a deep breath, and look around in appreciation of the moment and the place that exists right now.  At any given moment there is so much to notice and rejoice in.

Thanksgiving is not traditionally a time of resolutions, but why not, if the resolution is to be more thankful? And so, in keeping with that, I am asking myself why I am sitting inside writing this diary entry when the sky is blue, the air is crisp, and the leaves are golden. The projects can wait.  I’m taking a walk.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Approaching Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love it because it has resisted in quite admirable fashion being morphed into a “Hallmark Moment,”  replete with cards, gifts, and candy.  I love it because it is one of the few holidays (July Fourth being the other) that everyone who considers themselves American celebrates together.  It doesn’t matter where you are from or what religious traditions you follow, it belongs to everyone. 

 I love asking my community college students what they eat for Thanksgiving.  Seems as if almost everyone has turkey, but what ends up inside the turkey is as wide-ranging in its diversity as the country itself. The sides might be tamales,  pancit,  or sticky rice  in place of, or alongside mashed potatoes with gravy, and the bread might as easily be tortillas or injera as dinner rolls.

 Thanksgiving speaks to the universal need to express gratitude, an acknowledgment of this simple fact by the nation with the most to be grateful for.  Sure we have our problems, collectively and individually, but I try to remind myself that even at the lowest points of my life (which those who know me are aware have been pretty low) , I am more fortunate than most of the people on the planet.  For many years in place of a grace that  my agnostic family could  not say with any real sincerity, we went around the table and said a few things we were grateful for.  And then we dug in and ate and ate and ate.

But my purpose today is not to write about my personal list for this year, but to talk about some of the “big picture” things I am grateful for.  I was reminded of some of these by an article by Don Harrison, editor/publisher of San Diego Jewish World, which appeared in that paper today.  He had made a visit to a local university and been moved by a corridor which featured quotations from different wisdom traditions around the world.  Here are a few that particularly touched me:

Corridor of Wisdom Traditions at the University of San Diego.  Photo by Don Harrison
Corridor of Wisdom Traditions at the University of San Diego. Photo by Don Harrison

Buddhism on Service: May I through whatever good I have accomplished become one who works for the complete alleviation of the suffering of all beings. May I be medicine for the sick. May I be their physician and attend to them until their disease no longer recurs. May I be an inexhaustible storehouse for the poor and may I always be the first in being ready to serve them in various ways. May I be a protector for the unprotected, a guide for travelers on the way; a boat, a bridge, a means of crossing for those who seek the other shore. For all creatures may I be a light for those who need a light, a bed for those who need a bed, and a servant for those who need a servant — Bodhicaryavat?ra of Shantideva

Judaism on Wisdom — Happy is the person who finds wisdom and who gets understanding. In her right hand is length of days; in her left hand riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life for those who grasp her and whoever holds onto her is happy. Do not forsake her; she will preserve you. Love her and she will protect you, hug her to you and she will exalt you, embrace her and she will bring you honor. The wisdom is a house built and by understanding it is established. Whoever finds wisdom finds life and obtains favor from the Lord. — Proverbs 3

Christianity on Love: Love is always patient and kind. Love is never jealous. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offense or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Native American Tradition on Respect: O Great Spirit Whose voice I hear in the winds and Whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am small and weak. I need Your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things that You have made and my ears grow sharp to hear Your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things that You have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons that You have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother and sister but to fight my greatest enemy: myself. Make me always ready to come to You with clean hands and straight eyes so when life fades as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame — Let Me Walk in Beauty

Today I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect upon service, wisdom, love, and respect, and thankful for the lives of those who have passed these words on for all of us to contemplate.



Pretend It’s Broken

A short time ago I wrote a diary entry here entitled “Keeping Still.” I don’t allow comments on my site, since I am inundated by spam when I leave that possiblility open, but I wanted to share a wonderful response I got via e-mail  (please feel free to write to me in the same way, at lacauthor@gmail.com). It’s from David Fuller, author of the much-acclaimed novel SWEETSMOKE.  

“I have not reread SWEETSMOKE in some time and do not plan to in the near

David Fuller
David Fuller

future,” he writes. ” I went through it… for any changes I might have wanted to make to the paperback, and it was a slog because of how I had to read it — carefully, looking for problems.  Then there are times when I will read something in it that I feel is pretty good, and I know it’s my work, but it’s certainly not what I would write even now if I was thinking about certain things.  It’s not the work that you pen the first time through.  That fact can feel a little odd when you are reading something of your own that you like but don’t necessarily recognize as your style. ”

I’ve had a lot of experience with what David Fuller is talking about, having writen seventeen YA (Young Adult) books before switching to narrative non-fiction with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, and seguing there into historical fiction with THE FOUR SEASONS.  It’s really quite amusing–and very weird–to pick up one of my YA books on, say, Afghanistan, and not to recognize my writing at all, nor in many cases to remember material I once knew well enough to write about.  It’s like consulting any other book on the shelf, but having to remind myself that although it feels all new to me, that particular book is my work.  

“At that point,” Fuller goes on,  “I try to remember the immense amount of time I spent rewriting, combing those sentences until  they were humming.” Though perhaps too much time has passed to remember my YA writing clearly, I do recall parts of  subsequent works that well.  There are passages of only a couple of pages that took as long to get right as it took to write and edit the rest of the chapter in which they appear.  I don’t know why it is that some things stay clumsy and inert and other spring to life as if they have  just woken up rather than been created at all, but that’s the way it is.

But memory of which is which does fade.  I once heard a young mother say that it was lucky recollections of labor quickly receded, or women would definitely think twice about ever having another child.   Writing a book is a lot like that. Or should I say writing another book.

Fuller’s advice?   “Walk away from it.  Pretend it’s broken.  […] You need perspective, which can only come with time or a fresh set of eyes.  When you come back to it, you’ll be clear-headed and you will almost certainly find the nuggets of joy and brilliance, and you’ll dig them out.”

So that’s what I’m doing.  I have relegated THE LAWS OF MOTION, my newly completed book, to the same mental compartment as the cranky laptop that needs to go in for repair, the water filter in the fridge that needs replacing, and the car that needs servicing.  Other things beckon right now. Nothing’s really broken, and their time has not yet come.

And speaking of that, David Fuller also solved the mystery of the old advertising slogan I quoted in “Keeping Still.  Paul Masson is the wine that wouldn’t be sold before its time.  I don’t know if Paul Masson wine is still around–haven’t seen it for a while–but I hope, with patience and more work, that the LAWS OF MOTION, when published, will have a long and lovely “shelf life.”



Where Were the Women?

The earliest stages of the writing process for me involve no writing at all.  Long stretches of poring over other people’s work are punctuated by intervals spent staring out of windows or at blank walls.  It is in this stage, when I am trying to grasp what my story might be, that I notice most acutely the dearth of historical records about women.  

To pull off a historical novel, one must have piles of information, and sometimes the inverse proportion is what is most golden–the more mundane and trivial a piece of information may seem, the more exciting it is to the novelist.   Sure, it’s important to know the things that historians revel in–famous people’s actions and words, but I want to know what swear words people might have uttered under their breath, how they took care of their bodily functions, and what they wore to bed.

Most lacking is information about what was happening in the women’s sphere–the home, and the immediate neighborhood. To be sure, some historians specialize in such things, but even they can’t conjure up records of things no one thought to write down.  And unfortunately, those things often render to women the final blow of invisibility: even their names are often unrecorded.  This is especially true for Jews, who lack the baptismal records that are sometimes the only evidence a person existed.

Right now, for example, I am looking into the life of a famous Jewish scholar and diplomat in Medieval Spain.  I know the name of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but no one at the time recorded the the name of his wife.  Sources all name his three sons, but disagree about whether he had daughters, and if so, how many.  One major source refers to periods of great domestic happiness in this man’s life, but I am left wondering what that means.  That happiness is enhanced by an invisible wife?  That sons are all a man really needs?  I hate these thoughts and try to banish them quickly, for I don’t really believe that’s the way it was.  But without such records, how much we have lost!

And then again, information can come from the most unlikely sources.  I recently bought a cookbook of recipes from the Sephardic Jews of Spain.  Ironically, one way to gain enough notoriety to have one’s name recorded for posterity was to be brought before the Inquisition.  Because the original target of the Inquisition was those Jewish converts to Christianity whose practice of their new faith was perceived to be insincere, neighbors and servants often gave testimony against “New Christian”  women who were still following the Sabbath and keeping kosher homes. Inquisition records often go into great detail about what foods these women cooked and what practices they observed–a gold mine for the novelist, from a period of human history wretched and vile enough to bring even housewives out of invisibility.

My novels all focus on women–real where possible, and imagined in situations where I know such women must have existed. Unfortunately, even where the women are real, their stories are achingly sad, leaving one to think that perhaps they had not been quite invisible enough.  Still, as a novelist, I embrace the chance to let their silenced voices speak to us about their world,  our shared humanity, and the continuing mistake of valuing some lives more than others.