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Posts Tagged ‘teachers who influence your life’

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December Bloom, Minneapolis, Minnesota, iPhone Shots, December 24th, 2019, photo © 2019 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

On Winter Solstice, after two years of dormancy and a flirt with death, the orchid bloomed. The Pacific Sunspots was a gift from Liz on a birthday that crossed decades. I remember opening the wrapper on the deck of Indria, our little cottage. We have moved into an apartment now, simplified our lives. The blooms fill me with joy.

But I have grown lax in my practices. We had been toying with the idea of meeting friends in Santa Fe this winter and signing up for a haiku retreat at Upaya Zen Center. On Christmas Eve, all the pieces came together. Plane tickets were reasonable and there were still openings. Liz and I texted our friends who were driving home from Christmas Eve dinner. We booked our flights and registered — we three were the last to sign up before the retreat was marked Full. The hair stood up on the back of our necks.

On the day after Christmas (at the New Moon Solar Eclipse), I juggled bins in the studio to try to set up a workable writing space. One old box was full of practice notebooks from Taos writing retreats. I pulled one off the top. It was marked October/December of 2006. The detail was mesmerizing; I had forgotten all the insecurities that surface in silence. It can be painful to sit with yourself.

There was a color photograph tucked into a card of a wintry gate near the pigeon roost at Mabel’s. I studied the faces of Natalie, Maria, and the 21 people who attended the four-season Intensive that year. Some have become teachers and grandparents, retired, or moved across country. Many have published their work. Several have passed on to the other side. What happens to our art and writing when we die?

I went back through the notebook with a yellow highlighter and revisited the words I had written at a different time in my life. There were writing practices about a trip to Georgia, a pilgrimage with my mother to research ancestry. We searched cemetery plots in the rain and finally found the overgrown grave of her step-sister who died shortly after birth (I’d like to turn these into a finished piece). There were practices of dribble where I never dropped down into my body. They offered up a study of the crazy minute-to-minute thoughts that go on in one’s mind.

There were writing practices about the ghosts in Mabel’s room, the four-poster bed Dennis Hopper wanted to cut up with a chainsaw, the dogs and coyotes I heard roaming the Taos wilderness at night. In the paper margins were notes on bell ringing, mudras, zafus, and zabutons, and a schedule of the day trip to the plaza and the O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. There was scratchy handwriting, sometimes barely legible, of erratic emotions and thoughts that spill on to the page when we stop talking.

I had forgotten so much; and remembered everything.

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I’m excited for the possibilities of 2020: photography and practice, completing finished pieces, attending the haiku retreat in Santa Fe. It will be hard to drop into the discipline I once felt at the core. I could fail, but I have faith. When you look back a decade at your younger self, the creeping roots that once clawed their way into rich, black earth searching for nourishment spring forward like orchid tendrils in the sun — fortified aerial roots.

We were required to keep a log that year of our practices, a daily reminder of the commitment to ourselves and our writing. I’ll leave that practice from the old notebook in the comments below, a reminder from the ghosts of December past: Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good.

 

 


Handwritten notes in my October/December 2006 practice notebook from dharma talks and one-on-ones with Natalie Goldberg. I am grateful for everything she has taught me. And for the community of artists, writers, and contributors who helped create redRavine. It is a place I can return to feel grounded.

  • Follow the person behind you
  • Everyone feels insecure. It’s just what happens when we sit.
  • Rest. Make space.
  • Don’t push. Let yourself be.
  • Writing is manual labor of the mind.
  • The best kind of structure should be organic.
  • What can you be patient about? Make a list to remind yourself.
  • Crash through what holds you back.
  • Be willing to wait a long time for understanding.
  • Show first. Then tell. Don’t give everything all at once.
  • Don’t manipulate. Respect the reader. Slowly lead them where you want them to go.
  • Read Siddhartha again. His total breakdown led to enlightenment.
  • Push yourself to what you don’t know and make statements anyway. It pushes you into knowing.
  • Sometimes you tell the writing. Other times, the writing tells you.
  • You can’t just be a writer for a month. You have to be willing to go through the whole process, all of it.
  • If you get stuck, go back to basics: I remember, I’m thinking about, What I see in front of me.
  • Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.
  • Ride on the backs of the writers who came before you.
  • You can’t read a poem enough times.
  • Writing is about receiving. Sit still so you can receive.
  • When you walk in the mist, you get wet. -Dogen

 

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Reading old journals opens up the past revealing details of thoughts and memories long forgotten. When digging through writing notebooks, I ran across this 20-minute Writing Practice from June 16, 2013. It relates to redRavine and lessons that travel with me. In 2019 I still write about the places I have lived, loved, and have yet to travel.

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Loving A Place – 20min

Second cup of French Roast. Kiev sleeps in the window on a fuzzy white cat bed piled on top of blankets. I go over to the desk, organize the pile of envelopes, advertisements, and receipts into separate categories. Then over to the table in front of the couch, an object I love, a painted table that Liz picked up at an auction many years ago. There are painted squares of eggplant, mustard, and turquoise, edged with swipes of paintbrush black. I like surrounding myself with art objects I love. She did good on this purchase.

Next, I gather piles of books from around the living room, most recent purchases, some from a few months ago. I notice that I am halfway through a couple of books, have not even started two more. There is Mni Sota Makoce, The Great Journey, She Had Some Horses, Dragonfly Dance, Twelve Owls. There is The Round House, Hawk Ridge, First Words, and Dewy, The Library Cat. A copy of Refuge that I’ve had for over a decade sits next to the Canon wireless printer. I dug it off a book shelf when Liz, Teri, and I went to see Terry Tempest Williams earlier this year.

I organize the books by size. The heavy photography books like Lightroom 3, Digital Photography, Sony Nex, Black & White Photography are placed on the solid piano bench next to the Room & Board recliner. Liz and I both still buy good reference books; though I am sure many now look online for similar information, there is nothing like a good hardcover book with illustrations. I open the window next to me, feel the light summer wind blow past my face. The cottonwood is just about done dropping her seeds. The cranberry that Liz has named Snowball is fully mature and is blooming with umbrella-shaped pods of white on the tips of her branches.

I feel like I need grounding. I remember something my writing teacher wrote to me after I told her that I was sad she no longer toured or taught in Minnesota. She said she thought I would find Minnesota in her writing. I pick up The True Secret of Writing and thumb through the book, taking notice of the chapter headings that are laced across the top of each page. Loving A Place jumped out at me. I started to read about a layover in Minnesota on the way to Bismarck, North Dakota. This looks good, I think. North Dakota for Liz; Minnesota for me. I settle in to read.

She is staying with a friend who lives near Lake Calhoun. It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota, below zero, at temperatures where ice refuses to be melted by salt.

Two women jog past me, then later a man with a dog on a leash; otherwise, I have the place to myself. I pick up my pace feeling the tips of my fingers freezing. I can’t believe how much love I feel for this place with no logic to it. Sure I met my great Zen teacher here and lived a few blocks away from him for six years and, yes, I learned a lot about writing here, teaching in poet-in-the-schools and then resident writer for two years in a multiracial, multiethnic elementary school and then finally winning a big in-state fellowship that brought me to Israel and that recognized me as a writer. But stopping by a hackberry and staring across the flat white surface of the lake as cars at my back sped by, I understand love has no reason, makes no sense.

Finally I didn’t belong here, just as some of my best loves were not practical to live with or marry, but spoke to a part of me that yearned to be met. And as the years go by I remember them with all the unsheltered love I couldn’t manage to tame. Even though no one would call Minneapolis a wild place, besides its winters, for me, a second-generation Jewish girl from Brooklyn, it was my American frontier. I met people who grew up on Iowa farms, close to that sprawling wide American river, the Mississippi. I watched as people dug holes in the ice and fished and went to summer cabins in the north of their state. I come back to Minneapolis as a seminal home where I have no family and no roots, like a stranger in a strange place.

I’ve written about Minnesota a lot, struggling to escape what I thought was a weird attachment. Most Minnesotans think I hate their state. They are wrong. When I write about a place at all, even if I make fun of it, it’s because it’s stuck to my heart.

My friend Miriam says I have a jones for place. Some people love cars, old houses, the cut and line of clothes. What does our obsession tell us about ourselves?

-from The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, Part Three: Elaborations, Loving A Place, p. 110 by Natalie Goldberg

She was right. There was Minnesota. At the end of the chapter, she completed her journey into North Dakota, teaching students, then taking a trip to Theo Roosevelt National Park where the horses run wild. I see that wild in Liz, for generations back, connected to harsh winters, unforgiving wind, broad-stroked skies. Loving a place means learning to love the people who live in that place. Because the place has shaped the people they have become. Some of us are products of many places, depending on where our lives have taken us. To live in a place is not always to love a place; we come to love places where we have not lived.

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NOTE: The name of the Minneapolis lake mentioned in this Writing Practice (Lake Calhoun) was changed in 2017 to Mde Maka Ska. The Dakota originally called the lake Mde Maka Ska (modern spelling Bdé Makhá Ská meaning Lake White Earth.
Related to the topic:  WRITING TOPIC – A PLACE TO STAND

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Mrs. Rhodes Finds A Hobbit, doodle © 2007 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




Mrs. Rhodes was my tenth grade English teacher at Valley High School. She was petite, with small ears, and she wore her long graying hair swooped up, often in a giant bun or thick braid.

In my mind I see her at the front of the class wearing a crisp white cotton shirt and a long denim skirt. She doesn’t sit at her desk so much as stands in front of it, stands with leather moccasin loafers and talks with arms flying in the air. She speaks of the genius of the written word. Then she says, “Class…,” says it in a nasally voice that draws out the word, “Claaasss…, it’s time to open our books and read.”

She walks in fast steps around her desk, pulls out the chair and drags it in front where she’s been standing. Sits down, opens her book to the page where we left off last session, and begins reading. Out loud, as if we are first graders.

The funny thing is, I remember nothing about The Hobbit. That’s the book she read out loud to us. I can’t remember if she assigned or read any other book. The only memory I have of Mrs. Rhodes is her reading The Hobbit, and the only memory I have of The Hobbit is Mrs. Rhodes reading it.

We open our books to the page she tells us. We cradle our copies with our arms, drop our heads inside our cradles, then sneak glances at one another. We know what’s coming. She starts reading. Her voice gets small and childlike. She reads slowly, much more slowly than we track in the page. For this reason I close my eyes and listen only to her voice. It floats in the space around us, but not loose and unanchored. It fills the room. There is depth in that voice. There is history and generations. She’s carrying something forward, passing it on. All this I detect in the stillness of the room, silent except for Mrs. Rhodes’ small singular voice.

And this is what I remember most. Always, the voice cracks. It wobbles and weaves, eventually stopping altogether. I don’t want to open my eyes. I beg in my head, Keep going, just keep going. Silence. A classroom full of 15-year-olds, some giggly and high, some asleep, most shuffling, moving waffle-stompered feet on the dirty linoleum. I look up. Mrs. Rhodes is fixated on the page, tears falling now. She doesn’t look at any of us. I can tell she is composing herself. She takes a wadded Kleenex and dabs her nose. Then she continues.

I want to recall what happened to the hobbits that made Mrs. Rhodes weep. Did someone die? Were they tortured? I tell myself I will re-read the book, perhaps read it out loud to Dee. Maybe I’ll cry, too. I cried at the end of Watership Down when Hazel was old and slipped away to the heavens. The emotion welled up from nowhere, it seemed, and I tried to keep it in, but in my trying it became big and full and caused me to tremble so much that Dee lifted herself from my side so she could turn and look at me. Was it the same for Mrs. Rhodes? Did she fall so headlong into the story that she couldn’t help but cry when the characters she loved slipped away?

She always made it through the crying; it never lasted long. Then she’d get to an exciting section. Here her voice drops to a whisper, as if we’re alongside the hobbits in the woods, crouching under bushes. If she speaks too loudly she’ll give away our position. Someone in the class snickers, one of the vatos who’s had enough. She immediately stops, snaps her head up to see who’s making fun.

“What is it?” she asks. He shakes his head, says nothing.

“Don’t you believe? They’re real, you know.”

She looks from him to each one of us, looks deeply with her blue eyes, imploring. You can tell she’s pleading, You believe, don’t you?? There is desperation in that room, in that teacher. Each person she looks at in turn looks down.

She wants us to believe the hobbits are real, like fairies or spirits. Real like this moment. This life. We are not in Literature. This is religion, spirituality. We’re either believers or we’re not. When she gets to me I hold her gaze. Not because I’m a believer. I don’t know what I am. I’m lost, but I’m not about to let this poor woman be alone in the world.

Where are you, Mrs. Rhodes? What ever happened to you? I know nothing about the book you had us read, nothing except this recollection of you and me and the class. Why didn’t it dawn on me before what you gave to us? I thought you were crazy. Maybe you were. But you believed with all your heart in something at a time when I believed in nothing and no one. You touched me, left me with one of the few imprints I have from that time of walking through halls stoned and apathetic.

Thank you, Mrs. Rhodes, for leaving me with faith.

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