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Monthly Archives: January 2007

Magazines and Friends

During one of my classes at the residency (a class consisting of all 4th term students getting ready to graduate) someone commented that they were sure looking forward to a break when school is finished. While we have a four week break between semesters, most of us spend it reading material for the next residency and/or working on submissions for the workshop. In effect, we don’t ever get a break for the two years we are working on this master’s degree, and it becomes a bit daunting. But this time, we didn’t seem to have as much preparatory work for the new term, and this opened a conversation about how nice it’s been to be afforded a mental break. Several people talked about how great it was reading a book or two that was not mandatory reading.


 


I commented that I had spent Christmas vacation reading magazines. 


This was met with laughter and someone said, “So, you turned into a vegetable when you finally had the chance, did you?”


 


My knee jerk reaction was, well aren’t you all sudo-sophisticated snobs calling me a vegetable because of my reading choicse. I have a thin defensive skin regarding my intellect, due to years of feeling like a dumb-dancer. But my actual (more fair) response was, “I wasn’t exactly reading Cosmopolitan, you know. There are some amazing magazines out there, which fuel your mind. Yes, I read magazines. Plenty. I’ve yet to read a literary book that can give you the broad spectrum and the insight of good old fashion information, and there are some incredible writers on staff at some of the more interesting magazines too.”


 


Then, my friends backpedaled and said, “Well, I guess there are some magazines out there worth a dose of time. We thought you meant dumb ones, like fashion magazines.”


My class mates are good, talented, smart people, and I know they didn’t mean to offend. But they do have strong feelings about anything they consider commercial garbage and I don’t entirely agree with them.


 


Nevertheless, I said, “I read fashion magazines too. Shoot me.”


What the heck, I’m not ashamed of who I am. (And deep down, I have confidence that I will do more with writing than most of those closet-Cosmo-reading literary aficionados just by nature of my own determination. And I am not intimidated by art. I don’t have to pretend to be a purist regarding literary sensibilities. I can have a deep understanding of literary merit and enjoy commercial material too. 


 


Anyway, the fact is, I do read magazines. Too many, in fact. I subscribe to so many magazines that the postmaster at my P.O. Box (Vicki) has put me in first position on the waiting list for a super-sized box. My regular sized box is always jammed full of magazines. I also receive tons of books, because I now purchase everything on-line because there is no bookstore within an hour of our home. 


 


The other day, Vicki said, “I sure hope you like reading, because I’ve never seen someone receive more book packages.” I explained that I was in a master’s program and I needed a lot of books for school.


“It’s amazing you can see straight,” she said.


Ha, she should know I’ve always believed reading is the reason I see straight at all.


 


For example, I spent this morning reading my very favorite magazine of all time. Ode. This magazine is marketed as a periodical “for intelligent optimists”. I don’t know if I qualify, but I think I am somewhat closer to being one, thanks to the enlightened articles in this publication. All the pieces are short, based on elements that influence our world, yet with a positive bent, as if the editor decided long ago not to simply focus on problems, but to share information about all the solutions people are working on to overcome the world’s issues. I love this. Reading Ode, I learn who won the noble peace prize and why, and what inventions are on the brink of discovery to help our environment. I learn about progressive cultural exchanges, and new perceptions in philosophy, religion and politics. I read inspirational articles about people who impact the world in positive ways. It’s a down to earth magazine that doesn’t see everything through rose-colored glasses, but does discuss intelligent solutions to the things plaguing us today. Like the heading on the cover says, it is intelligent and optimistic.


 


I lay in bed reading Ode and every few minutes I’ll share some snippet of information I find fascinating with my husband, who usually just mumbles, “Wow, that’s nice dear.” I leave it around for him, but he has yet to read it. 

This month, there was a short one-page article on a new light bulb invented that lasts 35 years and uses 90% less electricity. Talk about a solution to our energy crisis! But the bulb costs 38 bucks. Over the lifetime of use, that still saves tons of money, and iit’s a way to pay heed to our environmental problems. But anything that isn’t cost efficient in the short term is often pushed aside, so the article discusses ways to change people’s attitude to accept this small change for a greater long-term benefit. Now, this may sound boring to you, but I read it and it swirls around in my mind for hours. I’ll be feeding the horses, thinking of light bulbs – the ones I use, the ones I now want to use. It stimulates my mind in great ways (like a lightbulb going off over my head, so to speak), so in the end, I think about more than just my routine of feeding horses.


 


I also read about a man with amazing, innovative management techniques that are the opposite of those traditionally incorporated today. He lets employees set their own hours, their own pay, and the entire company is set up as a democracy. And this company made 212 million last year. He states, “When people act like animals in a cage, I believe it’s not the people. It’s the cage.” Fascinating. Made me start thinking about what worked and didn’t work when I had my own company. Next thing you knew, I’d spent the afternoon thinking of ways I might have done things better. (Sigh) Next time?


 


Anyway, I wish everyone I cared about would read this magazine. It would keep us all on the same page. Little sparks of insight offered through easy reads like this stretch the boundaries of a person’s world. It not only feeds us with healthy information but it offers creative ways of thinking about the world. It is a message of positive hope, reminding us every individual can make a difference if they think outside of the box.  This is good for a person’s soul. Good for their health too to look at the world with a positive slant. And it’s fun – an intellectual orgasm, so to speak.


 


The point is, I don’t believe reading a magazine like Ode is a waste of time. I don’t think I’d  would be better served by reading one more book by Faulkner or Alice Munro instead. I think literary books are important, but people need a variety of input to be well-rounded individuals – and we need eclectic data to ignite our brains.


 


I used to preach this to my students when I could. I’ve always believed that the only way you can ever be a great artist is to be a great person first. I had issues with art obsessive students who lived in a dance vacuum. I’d say, “It is all well and good that you master your craft and can produce art amazingly well, which was accomplished by your tunnel vision determination – an admirable thing. But art is more than technique, and if you have nothing to say, no greater truth, your talent is worthless. Art reflects life. It is a vehicle of communication for human beings. What the hell are you gonna create a dance about, if you don’t understand anything but dance? A dance about dance is just movement, so shallow it simply won’t fly.”  (Competition fluff) 


 


The truth is, great composures, great choreographers, great writers, great artists of any kind, usually are recognized because of the substance behind their work. They create works based on social commentary – history, religion, politics, culture, etc. That is what draws an audience, because it moves them at the core of their being. People don’t hail art because it is “pretty”. Take a look at the greatest works of all time (in dance too). You can bet those company pieces that withstood the test of time are those by Graham or Twarp that said something about the earth – dances that have meaning. Pretty dances are a dime a dozen. The dances that make a statement last. And to make a statement, you must have an intelligent understanding of the world. 


 


I once was having dinner with a student/teacher from FLEX on a dinner break at a competition we were having. We had escaped for well-needed break from the madness. I asked this friend what they wanted out of life. She answered, “I just want to dance at FLEX forever.”


 


“Yeah, that’s good, but what else? Seriously. Everyone has dreams and aspirations. Working at FLEX is lovely and everyone should do what they love for a living, but there must be other things you desire deep down. Places you want to see or things you would love to accomplish. For instance, you may want to walk across Ireland to see the home of your ancestors, or write poetry just for yourself, or support the rights of squirrels or something. Everyone has a dream. What do you want out of life that will give your world meaning?”


 


She narrowed her eyes and said, “Not everyone has big dreams, and there is nothing wrong with me because I don’t want anything more than working at FLEX. Not everyone wants to write books. What is wrong with YOU that you can’t be happy with what you have.”


 


Later, my husband admonished me for “attacking” our friend. He said I make others feel bad for living a simple existence. “Not everyone is as complex as you,” he said, ( and this was not said as a compliment.)


 


I said, “I wasn’t attacking her! I was trying to help her think beyond the cage she is creating for herself. She is young, and she needs to be reminded that the world is a damn interesting place. I was hoping our conversation would lead her to realize there were things she wanted that would enhance her life, and I’d like to brainstorm to help her realize her dreams. I’m not saying she needs another job. I’m saying that life is more than work. I believe in encouraging others to expand their horizons. Besides which, can we ever talk to anyone about something other than dance? We’d just sat through 8 hours of competition and had four more to go. Was it so wrong to want a mental break and discuss something else? Don’t you get sick of every conversation being about the dance world?”


 


“These people don’t care about anything but dance. And they don’t want YOU to care about anything else either. It threatens and confuses them.  Did it ever occur to you that your incessant questions come across as if you don’t think people are good enough as they are. It’s as if you are testing them to see if they have a decent thought in their head . . . and sometimes, they don’t.” he said. “No reason to point that out.”


 


I certainly didn’t (and never do) mean it that way when I ask questions. But I am curious about what makes a person tick. And honestly, for all that I love dance, I think carving a life around only that leads to a person becoming a very shallow individual. Considering I genuinely care about my dancers, this creates a conflict. I want to introduce them to the grandeur of dance, but remind them that it should enhance other elements of life, not smother you or make you one dimensional. I hate to think that in order to dance, a person must sacrifice all the other fascinating elements the world has to offer. And face it, we get older. What is left when dance is gone if you didn’t develop yourself as a person along the way? (This particular senario happens to be what my thesis book is about.)


 


For the record I want to point out that later, my husband apologized for attacking me when he accused me of attacking her. This all happened at a time when I was first struggling with frustration regarding the narrow perspective of our lives (which ultimately grew and lead us to sell our business). My growing interest in the world beyond dance was unexpected, and a bit threatening back then. But later, more talks like this and confessions regarding the lack of meaning in our lives, lead to discovering we had mutual frustrations. We both harbored aspirations beyond the routine of building our school. And a lot of what we did with our lives was out of habit and clinging to what was familiar. It is easy to stick with something you are good at, but that doesn’t necessary promote personal growth.   Anyway, his angry reaction to me that day wasn’t about that conversation at all, but other things going on in our life, and in the end, he admitted he shared the same feelings as I about a narrow mindset. And he did not really hate the way I ask questions of people, because it usually made for fun conversation. Both important revelations.


 


In all fairness, I admit I ask too many questions of people. I guess I cross the boundary of social comfort when I venture into more intimate areas of a person’s mind. But heck, I find it boring to talk of weather or all those appropriate, surface subjects –it’s not real talking at all. I want to know where a person would live if they could live anywhere. What kind of work they would do if they could do anything. I am curious to hear what they went to college for, and why their career paths changed. I want to know how couples met, and what their weddings were like. I wonder if they ever played an instrument, and if they read books (and which ones they read). Are they religious? Vegetarians? A fan of Aerosmith?


 


My daughter warns her friends and boyfriends about me. She says, “Be prepared. My mother will interrogate you.”


 


I hate this. I DO NOT interrogate people. But I do ask them questions. If I ever fail to get into a good conversation with one of her new friends, someone she cares about that she has brought home to meet the parents, she then says, “What’s wrong. Don’t you like him? You didn’t ask anything about him? He was ready for you.”  Now, she’s offended that I didn’t find out some meaty information (which she then hopes I’ll share.) Geez – I can’t win.


 


I used to talk to Mark’s dad at holiday gatherings, and later I’d comment on things I learned. Mark would look at me strangely and say, “Hell, I never knew that. I guess don’t know anything about that man.”


“Well, you should have just asked”, I’d say – but in this case, I must admit, that quiet Scottish man was a tough nut to crack and I worked really hard at it – it was a personal challenge. But the point is, I find it sad that we can spend lots of time with people and never really know them. The best way to like someone is to know them. Then you put all your prejudiced assumptions aside.


 


When we had FLEX, there was a particular group of involved parents that I very much liked. I was always trying to learn more about them, but it was hard. Their kids were close friends with my kids, so we would gather at competitions or I would have them over to my home on Halloween (for my obsessive pumpkin buffet) and I’d try to pump information. I once asked a mom what she and her husband hoped to do when they retired – what secret ambition they had for their life. She shared an interesting picture of her ideal future, then blushed and said, “Why are you asking me this?” As if I must have some ulterior motive for being interested in her as a person. Then, she shut down – distrusting that I could have a sincere interest in anything other than her kid’s dance career, I guess. Big disappointment. I never forgot it.


 


We’d be sitting around after a competition and I’d ask women where their husbands were and what they did, and why I never got a chance to meet them. And they would always answer politely, but generically, then turn the subject back to dance and the kids and what choreography I might be planning for next year. So I’d ask about their work. Their hobbies. Again, I would get short, generic answers and this would be followed by a dance comment to get us back on track in the comfortable dance zone.


 


Mark was right, no one wanted me interested in anything but dance. I was neatly packaged into this dance guru role and everyone was most comfortable with me there. When I ventured to any subject other than dance education, my comments were met with skepticism, as if I must be trying to harvest information for some end, as if knowing their inner selves would give me fuel to gossip or something. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t like to see me distracted from their kid’s interests. Or maybe they simply didn’t want a friendship.


 


Let me point out that I loved their children. Really adored them. And I loved being their dance teacher and leading them into the world of the arts. I felt my job was significant – enriching the lives of young people and helping character development. And face it, I can talk dance for hours. It’s my number one subject. Try me. But the fact is,  these kids are twelve. I’m forty-seven. They are important young people to me, but they are students, not my friends. I always believed the true friends I’d find would be among those parents who supported their kid’s interest in the arts. I assumed we had similar core beliefs.  These were women with marriages, devotion to their kids, careers, personal interests, and most had a hearty sense of humor. We had a lot in common. But I was not allowed to be privy to who they really were. I was just the hired dance guns.


 


One time Mark said, “I don’t think they know who they are, Ginny. Sometimes I think they define their lives by their kids. That is all they talk about because that is all there is. You don’t define yourself by your children, so the truth is, you really don’t have much in common with them. ” But I couldn’t believe it. I thought it had to be something else. Maybe they worried that if they dared answered a question about their own lives, and the answer didn’t sit me, I’d put their kid in the back line or something. Right. 


 


I swear, I’m the only person I know who was swamped with people every hour of the day, yet who was so lonely she found herself talking back to the books she read just to escape the dance cell that she’d been sentenced to. Hello? Is there anybody out there? If I see one more sequin I’m going to scream!


Amazing that as dance teachers, we were always focusing on things like balance, but there was no balance in the process for us.


Ah well. It’s history now.


 


After we sold FLEX, I had dinner with a few of those parents I always thought I might have enjoyed if only I had an opportunity to know them as people. Most of the others had long since turned on us the moment they decided we were no longer useful regarding their child’s dance education. In fact, true to the theory, they had no interest in any kind of relationship now because we ventured beyond the confines of their dance interests. They even took pride, boasted, of how they wouldn’t give us the time of day. Punishment for us? Whatever. We broke that unspoken rule- we were supposed to remain in that dance guru place where we belonged. Permanently.  It was our role in life, and when we left, everyone was disappointed and angry. We were not the heroes they thought we were. We had let them down. We were horrible, selfish people who obviously didn’t care about “the kids” like they thought, or we wouldn’t have sold the school.


 


Anyway, at that dinner, I finally got a chance to talk to these parents who dared remain friends, just for the sake of past good times, and appreciation for our years of service. We didn’t just talk about the kid’s dance education, because some of them didn’t dance anymore. Some of them still danced at FLEX, but since I didn’t own it, discussing their dance education was sort of fruitless. Some of their kids even had begun dancing elsewhere. And all of this was OK. I was interested in their choices, and I gave them my two cents on the big picture, but beyond that, we eventually were able to move on to other subjects.


 


With the interests of the kids shortly exhausted, I began to learn who these adults actually are. I learned that one couple used to weave baskets and do stained glass. I learned another had a website featuring her artwork – beautiful vintage cards. She also enters (and wins) writing contests. Who knew? We talked and laughed about how they met their spouses and they shared funny things that happened on vacations, or when their kids were born. We laughed about old FLEX memories too and talked honestly about the kind of impression I gave others. Some of it was admirable, some of it wasn’t. Much of it was off the mark regarding what I actually felt or thought, and it was interesting (if not a bit sad) to see how people got the wrong impression of the Hendry’s due to a lack of any real talking.


 


I sat there, watching these familiar faces over my wine (Mark wasn’t with me that day), thinking how sad it was that I never had these kinds of conversations before. I would have been happier as the owner of FLEX had I had some non-dance related adult interaction. I would have probably been more effective in teaching their children too, because with honest friendship, you can help others see through all the dance bullshit. Anyway, I enjoyed the meal and I left thinking these people were now, at long last, real to me – individuals I could admire. They didn’t seem like obsessive dance nuts who had such a skewed sense of life priority (which honestly, it felt like people had considering we only saw that little-legue dance aggression side of them). Now I saw these dance parents as interesting, warm, quirky people who are defined by so much more than being parents of kids who dance. I mourn those potential friends we lost in our transition, those that couldn’t have a glass of wine with me because I sold the school, but I believe we gained something too. A new perspective on the people we spent years hanging around with. Some would have been friends all along had we found a way. Others never were. Interesting.  


 


I am so on a tangent!


Where was I?


Oh yea, if my schoolmates are right and magazines turn your brain into a vegetable, then I’m not a radish. I’m a whole faloot’in vegetable garden. These are the magazines I actually subscribe to. I read most all of them, some I pour over and read every word, others I glance out just to see if there is anything interesting inside. The titles are so varied, you could say I am a Reading Sybil.


 


Health & Fitness: Runner’s World, Shape, Fitness, Health, Yoga Journal. A Journeys (Appalachian Trail mag.) Backpacker


Human Interest: Ode, National Geographic, People, American Heritage, the Advocate


Cooking: Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, Taste of Home, Light and Tasty, Bon Appetite, Vegetarian Times, Food & Wine,


Figuring out what the heck I’m supposed to do with 50 acres: Hobby Farms, Mother Earth News, Grit, Equus, Horse Illustrated,


Special Interests: Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, Writer’s Ask, Writer’s Chronicle, Spin Off, Crochet, Bead and Button, Beads,  Budget Travel, Travel and Leisure (If you can’t go anywhere, you can always read about going)


Women’s (These I keep trying to let go, but they keep wooing me with deals, like a full year for 6-10$ so despite my resolve to par down the list, I usually cave. I read these the least, except for browsing for a few good recipes. Sometimes I think I could write for them though)  Woman’s Day, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle.


Literary Mags (Which I suppose might counteract the mush effects of the above, except that I tend to let them stack up in my “I will read when I graduate” pile. The benefit is sort of counteracted that way.) Missouri Review, Georgia Review, Brick, Rosebud, the Sun.


 


There are probably others I’m not thinking of or are not in the rack beside me. Eee gad. I’ve just counted for the first time. That is 42 magazine subscriptions! I have to read one and a half mag a day just to keep up. Eesh. I really do gotta par down. And this does not include those magazines I periodically get from organizations, like from the Heifer Corp, United Christian Children’s fund, Angora, Romance Writers, etc…, which I also read.  Then there is the fact that Mark takes up all that room in our mailbox with his three subscriptions to Woodworker, Log home and Men’s fitness. (Just like a man to take up space in a perfectly good PO Box with such nonsense.)


 


The more I write the more I realize I better go read the glossy print now. Gotta keep up.


Make the day count! Ask someone a question. Listen to the answer. Smile.

Kathy update

I haven’t talked about Kathy for a while, so I thought I’d post a quick update.


We took almost a month off over the Christmas holidays, due to the fact that the college was closed and I left for Boston the very week we were supposed to get back to our regime. I was anxious to see her, because I knew she had gotten teeth.


 


I expected her to look prettier, but I wasn’t prepared for how a set of false teeth would drastically change her appearance. Her smile is perfect now. Very natural. Her teeth are straight and white, her expression filled with feminine charm. The new teeth fill out her face, making her chiseled features look distinct. She also looks more intelligent. That sounds cruel, but it’s true. When she only had three rotting teeth, she looked like the stereotypical illiterate country gal you might picture right off if I was telling you about her. Now, she is far removed from the “hick” persona people find it so easy to poke fun at.  She looks not unlike the upper middle class mothers who used enroll their children in our dance school.  I imagine this slight change in her image will alter how others treat her is dozens of ways. Sad, but true.


 


I was thrilled for her. She said it took her a day or two to re-learn how to speak, but that was exciting too. Now I can work with her pronunciation, which is vital to grasping how to spell.  


 


She had brought me a few peanut butter cookies she had made from scratch. I sent her a Christmas subscription to a cooking magazine, hoping it would inspire her to attempt a few recipes. She said it was a complete surprise. To thank me, she made a batch of cookies from the first issue. The cookies were good, but I don’t think Kathy really knew how sweet they tasted to me. I munched slowly, staring at her (probably inappropriately, but I couldn’t help it) and we had our lesson. I had expected her to slip backwards a bit, considering we’d taken such a long break, but she did very well.


 


I asked her if she’d been practicing, and sheepishly, she admitted she hadn’t. That’s O.K. It was Christmas. We all relax and let things go at Christmas.


 


Then, she pointed out a word in a sentence we were reading, and said, “I should know this one. I see it a lot in the Bible.”


 


“You’re reading the bible?” I asked, surprised.


 


“Well, kinda. It’s pretty hard, so I just read the words I can. I have to skip a lot.”


 


I told her not to feel bad. The bible is a hard read. Heck, the few times I’ve tried, I’ve given up. I explained that it is written in old English, which means the sentence structure is unnatural to our ears today. And many of the words used are not common today either, making the meaning (if you can read them) a struggle. Then, there are the names. The names in the bible are long, not to mention difficult to pronounce!


 


She shrugged and said, “But I only read a children’s bible. It’s easier.”


 


“Still, it has to be hard. It’s not like they use nicknames,” I said.


 


I was delighted, because for all that Kathy thinks she doesn’t “practice” our work as much as she is supposed to (homework-wise)  she is obviously practicing. She is reading on her own, and no matter how simple the material is, this counts. She is attempting recipes. She is recognizing words on signs and on everyday objects she encounters. There was a time when she blocked out the written word.  Anyway, I think it is all very encouraging. I swear, after each lesson, I grin for hours.


 


Every week, she tells me all about the AA meetings and the drug court sessions etc, which she must attend. I listen, trying to absorb it all. Apparently, she’s told the judge and her parole officer about me. They said they hoped to meet me. I told her I’d go with her to one of her group therapy sessions one day. I’m interested to see what it’s really like. And I want to be there when she “graduates”, a ceremony they hold for those that succeed in this rehabilitation program. I am also going with Kathy the next time she speaks at the school. I guess you could say I am storing away information. I am planning to write an article about her for our local paper when the time is right (which means, when I have enough really positive material to make the piece resonate.) I want to do this, not because I write, but for her. I think it will be very special for her to have public acknowledgement for her hard work and her success. She keeps everything, every little certificate of achievement they give her as she moves through the program. I imagine an article would be a huge element in solidifying her new self-confidence.


 


Anyway, Kathy and I are plugging away. I am watching her evolve before my very eyes. It is remarkable.


 


And it is inspiring too. I hope to write about her one day. Perhaps I’ll write a memoir about teaching someone to read, but I’m thinking more of using what I’ve learned from her (and about her) to write a fictional story. I even have a concept. What if, while teaching a woman to read, an assignment is given for her to fill out as many forms as she can – for practice. And she fills out a card to win a free trip to Europe and wins a trip for two! Since she is single, and nervous about going, she thinks she should skip it, but her tutor encourages her to be brave and have this wonderful, once in a lifetime experience. The woman says she’ll only go if her tutor goes with her. Together they make the trip. In a different country, the tutor is suddenly at the same disadvantage as the illiterate student. Now, neither can read street signs or menus. But they can learn the new language together, and the strengths of the illiterate American woman suddenly shine through, because the playing field has been equaled. She is treated equal to her tutor, for here they are just American tourists. And they finds that in many ways, the student is more resourceful than her teacher, thanks to years of maneuvering without being able to read and communicate easily with others. This would have a huge impact on the woman’s self-esteem – and teach her that she is more capable than she ever knew, when years of being disadvantaged had taught her not to aspire too much of anything. I don’t know. I think a story like this would give room for great character growth for both of these characters, and a story like this would offer insight about people – how we perceive ourselves and others. And I could lace this tale with humor so easily. It would be romantic, fun. I could fill it with great scenes with beautiful men, the awe of travel, and what have you  Heck, I have a model for the entire thing sitting across from me every week, a friend fueling the idea.


 


Mark said, “Humm… interesting. But I guess you would need to travel to Europe first to make this story realistic. You’d need experiences to draw upon to make this story right.”


“Gee, ya think so?” I say, batting my eyelashes innocently. I’m no fool.


“But let’s make it perfectly clear – you wouldn’t be going with Kathy…” he says, obviously planning to be by my side when I do my research.
“No shit,” I say, laughing. 
 


Man –o-man, I can’t wait to finish my thesis and move on to the books raging inside.  This is just one of the ideas busting to take shape.  It needs some work, but it is just an raw idea. Writing is such an adventure. It allows you to live the life you imagine on paper.   And if you play your cards right, it can take you places you have a hanker’ in to see too.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Winter is the time for hiking on our land. It’s often gray outside, but it isn’t too cold (mid 40’s). The underbrush has died out this time of year making it the best of circumstances to explore, thanks to the absence of nasty thickets and thorns. Mark and I have been on a quest to learn more about the other end of our forest. We didn’t walk this area when we were searching for a house site because we knew we wanted to put our home near the creek. Most of our early walks were along the back of the property where the water rolls along the wooded hills and through the small pasture portion of our land where I keep the animals.


 


Now, we are planning trails for walking, horseback riding and four wheeling through the forest, so we’re venturing into the opposite end – the unused portion of our acreage. We are trying to find reasonably clear potential paths that Mark can take a tractor through to make level, safe trails. This involves tearing out small trees and thorny bushes with the tractor, cutting away overhead branches by hand and then going over the area again with a scraper bucket to level it a bit. Mark would like to line the pathways with mulch someday, perhaps put a few rustic log benches along the way too. He is contemplating purchasing a wood chipper for this purpose, a good idea since we have this endless supply of trees and wood remnants from his projects to grind into mulch. However, pretty, mulched paths are a low priority when there is so much to do to get this property functional. For now, we just want to make a simple clear trail through the dense forest so we can use this area for recreational purposes.


 


The entire process of making trails is labor intensive. Finding the best path to make is difficult.  We must avoid huge trees that are too difficult to remove, avoid places where the hills are too steep, too rocky or too lopsided, because the tractor might get stuck. We also need to stay on our own land if we are planning to make changes in the terrain, and there isn’t a definite boundary along ½ of our 50 acres.  Thankfully, years ago a neighbor did run a single barbed wire along his property and this helps us to know where our land ends on one side.  As for the other side, well, we have a hard time trying to figure out just how far our land goes. Each of our neighbors has 100 plus acres. We also keep getting lost on walks. We were told there once was a county road that circled Kings Farm (our land) and this defined our property line. We discovered an overgrown path that probably was this road long ago at the very front of our land, but deep in the forest, it disappears. When we walk through the trees we get all turned around and confused, then all of a sudden Mark will say, “Hey, there is my workshop” and we will get our bearings again. It sure makes it understandable how people really do get lost in the woods. Apparently, it’s an easy thing to do when you are out there with endless trees and a hidden sky.


 


Slowly, we are learning this unexplored side of our land and beginning to plan future paths. Mark took a tractor in and carved out a good 50 feet where the former road lay, but now he is at a point where we have to tag trees in advance to guide him through the wilder areas safely. We’ve discovered some cool things, such as an old house site out in the forest. We found a pile of rocks that was a former hearth with an old tin chimney shoot. I found a big glass jar too. They used to make moonshine out here, (they called this area “hells hollow” because of it and I wonder if this “site” might have been a rustic cabin designed for that purpose. Fascinating! We stumbled upon a dried up man made well and we’ve discovered many deer paths.


 


Mark finds things he plans to come back for later, like a cherry tree, all gnarled and burled that he can harvest to make something remarkable. When nature is your art medium, originality is limited by those gifts you discover through sheer luck. Yesterday, he pulled a thin tree from the ground and it had this huge bulbous knot under the soil near the root, like a big, wood onion or something. It was a freak of nature. He was thrilled. Turned and polished, that will make a unique bowl, I’m told. For this reason, our walks are fun, but they do demand energy and involve some discomfort –everything from scratches to sore muscles. Mark is famous for pushing branches aside and letting them loose with perfect timing so they careen towards my face. Luckily, I have good ducking reflexes.


 


Sometimes I wonder if we are totally crazy. It would have been so easy to just buy a farm with a nice workshop intact, a barn, and perhaps some well-used paths. Life could have gone on uninterrupted- no wait for gratification. But leave it to us to find an expanse of land that didn’t bare the stamp of someone else’s vision. As such, our life is labor intensive from all angles. And it requires patience. Mark is still waiting for his workshop to be finished (waiting for final electrical work to get those big machines running). I don’t know when (or if) I will ever get a barn, and it will take years to correct the soil to get our currently weedy pasture lush and to create the big generous garden I want. Paths designed for pensive walks or rides will probably be a five-year project, at the very least. And then, there is the grove I want to plant. It takes a minimum of three years for apple or peach trees to produce – ten years for walnuts. As you can see, we have to have faith and long term vision to make this land self sustaining and ideal. 


 


But everything worth having is worth working for, so I’m not complaining. Our house was a huge, difficult project, but it was worth the sacrifices and the long wait. I trust, in the end, our homestead will be a paradise suitable to our specific tastes, and we will be able to take pride in every inch of it. Putting your stamp on a place makes it really your own. But, (sigh) it does make you want to take a nap or two along the way.


 


When the grader came to fix our decrepit gravel road (after cement trucks visiting the house site tore it up) he told us of a fellow who would take out pine trees for free. You allow the guy to sell the trees to a paper company and he will do the work to remove them. Since you are not paying him, he leaves a bit of a mess behind. Stumps and debris are left in the areas deforested, but if you want trees removed, at least the heavy work has been accomplished.


 


Our forest area is so dense that you can barely walk through it. Unfortunately, it isn’t thick with wonderful hardwoods, but quick growing pines. These trees grow straight up in short time, then they rot and fall. Downed trees are everywhere, rotting and making the land look a mess. Every time there is a heavy wind, a tree will fall to block the road, or one will crash into our pasture fence, or threaten to collapse our workshop or chicken house. We lost our huge metal garage that way. Several fences. When trees fall and obstruct the road, Mark removes them with the tractor, but it takes half a day. We’ve had most of the potential problem trees removed around the house, but still, these wicked trees are everywhere, threatening to land wherever they may. It is frustrating. In the evenings when I walk to feed the horses, the sound of these monster trees creaking, groaning and cracking like the bones of some old man getting out of bed, is ominous. I imagine them crashing down around me. Some are even at huge slanted angles, readying for that moment when they will slap the earth.  They are like weapons – bombs waiting for a trigger (a slight wind) to set them off.


 


The country boys here call these trees “nigger pines” (because they are good for noth’in) which, as you can imagine, offends me to no end. I told them they are not to use that term EVER around me. They argued that that is what the trees are called. I said, “Certainly they have another name. I don’t believe the word “nigger pine” is going to be found in any botanical dictionary in the world.”


 


They grinned and explained that the only other name for them is “Virginia pine”, and if I rather have these damn, good for noth’in trees named after ME, well, they can call ’em that. I told them I can live with the term, so now when we discuss the trees, they are referred to as “those trees” – at least when I am around.


 


Anyway, the pines are a problem, not everywhere, but in areas where we want to function safely. So, we made arrangements with the pine removal man, and he has come to remove trees from the land surrounding the pasture. He comes in with huge equipment to cut down and load dozens of 30-foot pines into a flatbed truck. Each day, he carts a load away, but it hardly makes a dent in the woods. Amazing. He leaves around four, which is when I feed the horses. I’ve started walking back through the woods where he has deforested, checking out the new lay of the land. I look to see if there are any animals that might have suffered from the project, afraid I might find a baby squirrel dislodged from a  nest or a baby raccoon whose den has been unearthed. So far, I haven’t found any creature distressed, thank goodness. But is it odd to see the land changed. When you drive in now, you can see the road to the house where before you could only see trees. It takes some getting used to. It isn’t better or worse, just different.


 


I think about how difficult it must have been for early settlers to do this with nothing but an ax and a draft horse. Amazing what man has accomplished throughout history. It is a huge job even now, with chainsaws and huge grapple machinery and trucks. The massive pile of leftover branches is daunting. Mark will have to work hard to clean the area up. He will have to get out there on his tractor, move it all to a burn pit, and remove what stumps he can. Eventually, we will have a cleared area with only a few hardwoods left behind. We can plant shade plants here, or ride through the open spaces on the horses. We can position a picnic bench under the canapé of hardwood trees left, or remove them and turn this area into an apple grove. Whatever we do, it will offer us new possibilities for this section of the land, which is exciting.


 


We are waiting to see how we feel about the deforested area before deciding what to do with the rest of our land. If it is too much work to clean in the aftermath, or if it looks too “cultured” we will stop him. We figure we will probably be happy allowing the pine-guy all the area around the pasture, which is probably twelve acres, but we will leave the twenty acres of dense forest on the opposite side of the road wild. Trees may fall on our riding paths, but Mark can cut them up for firewood. I’d hate to lose all of our natural forest, even if it is full of creaky pines and dense underbrush.


    


So, with diligence and effort, we are making this little corner of the world evolve into something akin to our fondest (middle-aged) dreams. This project is not unlike our former accomplishments, building a business and/or designing a certain kind of life that involved a creative work environment, family and home. As a couple, we have always worked together well, probably because we think so much alike. When two like-minds focus together on a single target, wonderful things can be accomplished. At least, that has proven to be the case with us. What is important is that we continue to “see the forest for the trees.” And just to make sure we don’t lose sight of the big picture, we are even thinning out our trees a bit. 

And now, for a bit of pictorial illustration. . . 
This is what the forest looks like before we thin out the trees. See how they tumble? This is not one of the worst sections, but an area where the picture actually turned out.



This is a the pine-guy (I really should ask his name) at work taking wood for paper. Hey, wonder if any of that will find it’s way home and become a canvas for the manuscript I am writing. Even if not, it is a romantic thing to imagine….
   



This is the mess Mark is left to clean up. I don’t know if you can see how big the pile of branches is, but it is at least the size of a garage. I’ve also added a picture of one of Mark’s new trails (this one goes from the house to the workshop) so you can see what a raw path looks like.

   


Now, I must get my head out of the trees and off of paths I want to walk and return to the path of more resistance. Homework.  Sigh.

Oh, that beautiful Papaya Pill.

A few weeks ago, I decided to purchase papaya tablets for my angora bunnies. Since there isn’t a health food store around here, I went on-line to a discount vitamin company to place an order. I found what I was looking for at a great price, though shipping more or less ate away the savings. As long as I was paying postage, I decided to browse a bit to see if there was anything else I might want to include in the package. I ended up buying a bottle of joint supplement for my husband because he is constantly battling arthritis in his hips and knees.


 


When I got home from Boston, Mark mentioned that my package had come. He said, “I see you bought me some pills. Thanks.”


 


I said, “I thought they might help. Where are my rabbit vitamins, by the way?”


 


He hesitated a moment, then said, “What rabbit vitamins?”


 


“The papaya enzymes. You know, the ones I went on-line to get for my angoras. I told you about that. They help the rabbits pass the hair they digest.”  


 


“You told me that? I don’t remember. Well, now that you say it, maybe I do. I did wonder why you bought so much of the stuff.”


 


“Well, where’d ya put them?”


 


Mark shrugged guiltily. “I’ve been taking them. I thought they were for me. I saw the joint pills so I just assumed whatever else was in the box was something you wanted me to take.”


 


It turns out, he put the remaining three bottles in my office. A few days later, I noticed Mark taking his vitamins, and he was still popping papaya enzymes. This amused me.


 


“So, how’s the papaya working out for you, dear?”


 


He cast me a sideways glance. “Really good. I haven’t coughed up a hairball once since I began taking them.”


 


Made me grin, but what the heck. They can’t hurt him.


 


Later that day, we were eating lunch, and Mark looks at me thoughtfully and says, “You look amazing. Really gorgeous. You are going through a fantastic phase.” He has been saying this a lot lately. I’ll be knee deep in horseshit and he will pause and tell me I look fantastic. Always cracks me up.


 


“Thank you dear.”


 


“No really. Every since we sold FLEX you’ve looked ten times better than you use to look. Maybe it is your going to school too. You look different. As if you are at peace or something. I think it’s contentment. That can change your entire look, you know.”


 


“Could be. I certainly scowl less now that I am arguing with chickens rather than dance parents.”


 


He now starts waving his spoon at me, as if he is analyzing my face, pointing to all the parts that make the whole. “Your hair is glamorous. You look like someone going into a beauty contest, not like someone getting ready to go hike in the woods.”


 


“Thank you dear.” (I’m now thinking it is time for him to stop, and I was right, because the next thing he said was..)


 


“You’ve somehow even grown into your nose over the years. Your face is perfectly proportioned now. Amazing.”    


 


Well, for thirty seconds he was almost romantic.


 


It occurs to me that if I am just in a “good phase”, it implies I will move through the phase and come out at the other end as homely as I might have been before. And I don’t have the heart to tell him that my great hair is really just a result of the Georgia water and the lack of Florida humidity. Every day is a great hair day for me since we moved here. I’ve been extremely lucky in that way.


 


 I shrug and say, “I think it’s just that you love me, so I look pretty to you.”


 


“Oh, I’m sure that isn’t the case,” he says. (Now I’m thinking, “Are you a total fool? Do you realize that was your opportunity to gain major brownie points, and you blew it. You better shut up before you dig a hole so deep you wont be able to climb out, buddy.)


 


I point out that I am one of those women who tend to get better with age and he’d be wise to keep taking his vitamins, because by the time I’m eighty, he’s gonna have a wife that’s a knock out and I’d hate for him to miss it.


 


He spends a few more minutes talking about my face and body like I am a car and he is kicking the tires.


 


I occurs to me that he’s been pointing out how pretty he thinks I am a lot lately, at the oddest moments. Like when I am vacuuming the car, or scrubbing a toilet or stepping out of the shower all wet and cross-eyed because I’m so tired. I usually pat him on the head and say thanks, or I just ignore him. He has to think I’m pretty. It’s a husband’s job.


 


Then, yesterday, he starts complimenting me again as we were headed out for our daily walk in the woods. I put my hands on my hips and said, “Honey, I hate to tell you, but it isn’t me. I’m the same as I always have been. Perhaps, now that we don’t own FLEX you’ve gotten around to  noticing me for the first time. The truth is, I think it’s you. You are the one who has changed somehow, and this changes your perceptions. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. But it isn’t me. It’s you.”


 


For a few minutes he contemplates this. “Maybe you’re right. It is me.” Then, he grins and adds, “I am, after all, taking rabbit vitamins.”     


 


Ha. Well, there you have it, Girls. Run out and purchase some papaya enzymes and you can be pretty 24-7 too.


 


So today, I started taking a few papaya enzymes with my vitamins as well. I figure, what the heck. Can’t hurt me. I won’t have to worry about hairballs . . .  and it just might help my husband grow into his big ole ears (which look a bit bigger since he began taking the rabbit pills.  Hummm…)

Whatever works, I always say.

Rooster madness

First impressions often are misleading. You can know someone for a long time, and you are confident you have them pegged, then something occurs to make you realize they are a totally different sort of person than what you originally believed. Shakes you to discover how wrong you were all along.   


 


But who’d a thought that would prove the case with chickens too?


 


Those of you who have been around a long time might remember how badly I coveted a rooster once I decided to try the country lifestyle on for size. I bought a half dozen chicks, hoping one or two might turn out male. As it turned out, only one small bannie turned out male and he had only a teeny crow – hardly satisfying for a girl who wants a boisterous crow for an alarm clock. Therefore, I went out and bought Joe, a big, strapping rooster. You can’t have more than one rooster unless they are free range and you should provide many, many females to keep them happy. Confined together, roosters will fight. It’s nature’s way (thus the basis for illegal cockfights.) However, I was lucky. My pint sized rooster and my big, bossy rooster seemed to get along fine in their pen. I plan to let my chickens out to free range in the spring anyway, so I just need them to remain happy for a few more months.


 


The other day, we heard crowing. Oddly, it wasn’t as loud as Joe’s usual song or as delicate as little Pot Pie’s. Mark and I started arguing about which bird was making the racket. We crept around the corner to prove which of us was right, and don’t ya know, but it was Phyllis (Ahem, now he’s a Phil, I guess.) Phil is one of the wild afro headed fancy chickens that I bought six months ago. He’s sprouted those red jowls under his chin and the feathers around his neck have grown long, covering his chest like a magnificent mane. I guess puberty’s finally caught up with him, revealing itself the week I was in Boston. 


 


I was shocked. Delighted. Amazed. It took six months for this maleness to reveal itself. But now that it’s come out of the closet, there is no turning back. Uh Oh.


 


The new Phil started crowing more than any of the other roosters. I thought he was just flexing his new male muscles, proving his manhood or something. I watched carefully, but the three roosters didn’t seem inclined to fight, so things looked amicable, at least for now.


 


Then, I discovered why I was hearing that new crowing so much. HE wasn’t the only one testing out his new crow. The other afro-head fancy chicken was crowing too. No physical changes in this one yet. In looks, he still appears to be a chicken, but obviously not.  I stared at this bird, checking time and again to confirm that that sound was really coming from him- surely I must be seeing things. Diller can’t also a rooster! But apparently, he is. Holly Cow.


 


Now, I have four confirmed boys- only three girls. And I keep staring at my two silkies imagining they are going to bust out in a big cock a doodle doo any time now too. Ee-gad. I am drowning in roosters! Mark keeps saying, “I think the black silkie is a boy too.” I don’t know if he really believes this, or he likes to torture me. He has a devious smile every time he mentions it. Only a shallow man could find my rooster delimma entertaining, and I told him just that.


 


In a way it all makes sense.  Here I was thinking my chickens are big egg-laying slackers. Umm….. considering boys don’t lay eggs, I guess it’s pretty clear why I haven’t stumbled upon any eggs yet. The question is, will I ever? Ee-gad. What if they are ALL roosters!


 


Next thing I knew, the two newly mature roosters started fighting – just small squabbles, but I was pretty sure it’d only be a matter of time until things would escalates. I’d have to get rid of a few roosters. Shit. I am now totally attached to these birds, ya know, and when someone around these parts is willing to take a fully grown rooster, it’s usually for the dinner table.


 


My best friend, Jody, was in town visiting the weekend I got home from my residency. Her son moved up here last year and his girlfriend just had a baby, making Jody a new grandmother. Anyway, when she visits she and her son (Kent’s dearest friend) stay with us.  I always look forward to and enjoy her time up here. We take walks, ride the horses and talk till we are hoarse. Anyway, she was with me when we discovered Diller was another boy.


 


She said, “I think he’s a cool looking bird. I’d take him home with me if I had a cage I could fit in the car.” Oddly enough, Jody already has a pet chicken at home that hangs out in her yard. And it just so happens I have an extra cage. Mark recently found it under the cabin, and because it was slightly rusty, he told Kent to throw it into the burn pit. I saw it and thought “no way are you gonna toss a perfectly good cage”. I rescued it, thinking with all the animals we have and will have, we can always use another cage, rusty or not. What do ya know? Seems like fate to me.


 


The next day, we loaded the bird in the rusty cage into the back of Jody’s car for the long drive back to Florida. It was crowing all morning, as if he wanted to assure me he was positively male and I had made the right decision letting him go to the land of sunshine.  He will have a girl all to himself now. Great luck for a slow-to-mature bird, don’t you agree?


 


So, I have three roosters now, which I admit, makes me a tad nervous. And I suddenly feel sadly chicken deprived. Next month, the first shipment of new spring chicks becomes available. I plan to bite the bullet and pay the big bucks for pre-sexed chicks – that way I KNOW I’m buying egg-layers. Non-sexed birds are about 3.00 each and you take your chances. To assure I get girls I’ll have to shell out a whopping 4.50 a head this year. Ah well, that is the kind of financial sacrifice I must be willing to make to get what I want. You see, other people don’t care what they get. The girls become egg provides and the boys become fryers.  Personally, I love boys too much to be the instrument of their demise. So, I’ll practice what is the equivalent of chicken birth control to keep my poultry morals intact.


 


Now you may ask, how many girls will I buy? LOTS! I figure with three boys (and who knows what to expect from those sneaky silkies) I need lots of tail to keep everyone crowing. We will be overrun with eggs by the time I’m done, but what’s a girl to do? That is the cost of Rooster over-compensation.


 


Ya just never know when life is gonna throw you a curve.

What I Learned at my Last Residency

I have finally returned from my residency. It was intense, and frankly, I wasn’t much in the mood for “intense” at this stage in the game. But now that it’s over, I am grateful for the entire MFA experience, despite the fact that, at times, it seemed as if I was needlessly submitting myself to heart wrenching and ego destroying torture.


 


I had a sort of epiphany during the week. Suddenly, everything fell into place. I understood the subtlety of literary writing, and had a better grasp of my own writing nature (both the good and the bad). This clarity put me into a deep, contented calm. For months, I’ve been very frustrated and my mind has been clogged up with questions. I was one of those difficult students that challenged the academic world and the literary approach to writing. I felt as if I was in the wrong place (for me). I hung in there, but with a small dash of skepticism to make the huge serving of humility easier to swallow. Then, the final days of my last residency . . . things changed. 


 


I don’t know if it was a matter of the right combination of lectures, or the fact that hearing the same truths over and over again in different ways finally allowed my mind to circle the concepts. Mayhap, my slow understanding can be attributed to forth quarter seasoning. I did wonder if every senior suddenly comes away with clarity at this pivotal climax in the program– but in talking to others, I’m guessing some do and some don’t.


 


Anyway, I went to school thinking I spent a great deal of time and money on an academic education which was nothing more than a needless hike off my path, (and a way to get a piece of paper to support a teaching job, should I ever want one) but I came home feeling as if getting my MFA was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. All the things my mentors have said from the very beginning suddenly rang true. I felt such a deep appreciation for their advice and encouragement. I also felt horrible, chagrined that I didn’t trust them, wasn’t more receptive, and didn’t immediately comprehend the abstract concepts they presented from the beginning. I think the professors, professional writers all (each already having struggled through these layers of understanding themselves) have a very difficult job transferring the knowledge to others. The failure rate must be very high. So many students leave with mediocre writing ability and shallow literary commitments. This isn’t the fault of the instructors, however. They say all the right things with admirable passion and an earnest desire to help beginner writers improve. They love literature, and sincerely want to introduce their students to the glory of writing from a “real place”. But writing students come with this hard to penetrate shield of ego that makes them thick as a rock. How those poor professors keep from bopping us on the head, I’ll never know.  


 


In my case, I came to realize that what they are trying to teach about writing is unteachable. Writing well is something that only time, reading, grasping, and trial and error can teach you. Developing literary sensibilities is a bit like faith, somewhat intangible, yet it exists in your soul. Exposure seems to be the only way to absorb the essence of what a person needs to know to write well.  


 


Like so many of the students I talked to, I came to the program expecting to be taught how to write. I thought that entailed learning sentence structure, character arcs, and plot development. I wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. These basic skills are often clearly missing from much of the student’s work, which also shook my confidence in the program. “If the students can’t tell a decent story, who cares how beautiful their language sounds.” I thought. 


 


But now, I think an MFA program is based on the theory that every student comes with basic storytelling knowledge. If not, they’ll learn it later. Due to all the seminars and classes I took before this program, I was more knowledgeable than most in the storytelling nut and bolts. Odd, that. So many of the students already have a masters in English, or at least a BA in creative writing, poetry, or English. This doesn’t help them master storytelling per say, but it does provide them a strong foundation for higher concepts. I was a different sort of student, lots of real life application skills, but lacking in a strong academic foundation. For example, every student in the program has this vast repertoire of literary reading to draw from. They are all familiar with Carver, Wolfe, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Whitman, and Hemmingway. I’ve only ready a few of these remarkable authors, and that was back in high school or in my one Classical Literature Class in college. Made me feel inadequate in classroom discussions, I’ll tell you. (I now understand why I had trouble being accepted into such a program. I was not what they were looking for, by any means.)


 


But as is my way, I tried to compensate. I read everything I could these past two years, and bought every book mentioned in a class, even if it was only a brief statement such as, “Did you ever read (fill in the blank)? It was a great example of what we are discussing”. I kept a list of titles in the columns of my notes, then bought every book referred to on Amazon when I got home. Now, I have this huge pile of unread literary masterpieces that I intend to plow through now that my school reading is over. I may have started off behind in this academic race, but I will end up qualified to discuss the great examples of literature (at least my opinion of it) with the best of ’em.


 


I must now turn my attentions to my thesis manuscript. I’ve rewritten this bugger completely, three times now. It still sucks. But now, I understand why. I’ve written this book with an edgy voice, in a style that borders on chick lit. Commercial.  But the subject matter is very meaningful to me, and handling it in so trite a way makes the entire story ring false. I truly hate my book and my leading character, which happens to be bitter and unlikable, not to mention that she can’t stop saying all these stupid one-liners that make me cringe. I need to dump half the book and rewrite it to show the depth and the confusion of the main character. And I need to stop stereotyping the dancers in the book. I was trying to write a book about dance, but really, this has to be a story about one dancer. There is a huge difference. If this is a book about one dancer and her struggle with aging, it will be poignant and real. If I tell the story well, it will introduce my reader to those elements of dance I wanted to write about too.


 


So, (sigh) it is back to the drawing board, yet again. I only need 120-150 complete pages for my thesis, due on April 9th. They don’t really want a finished product, they prefer a writing sample as tangible evidence that you’ve developed as a writer. This will be shelved with a zillion other thesis manuscripts, all equally imperfect – they are, after all, only examples of student work. They say your “book” (the one you might sell someday, or share with the world) is something that comes later, long after you have graduated. Trusting that, I will not fret my book being incomplete. I will just do the best I can at this stage in my development. I’ll concentrate on those opening pages. Then, I think I will probably put this novel aside and turn to something else for a while. Sometimes I think this is a book I am not meant to write – or not meant to write now, at least.  But I must attend to it to complete my thesis, like it or not.  Anyway, my book has been an interesting tool of torture, but it’s brought me to a greater understanding of writing as an art.


 


Funny, what made me a good dance teacher was my understanding of dance as an art, rather than approaching it as an activity of entertainment or a physical mastery of steps and tricks. And the bane of my existence was fighting dancers and their parents to teach the vital element that gives dance artistic merit. My students, due to their youth and their endless exposure to commercial dance venues, saw only the surface design of dance, quickly becoming overconfident in their abilities when they mastered technique. They were always so sure they knew what they needed and wanted and they were forever looking for validation through foolish means. Meanwhile, I went crazy, because they were blind to the deeper understanding I was trying to convey. Very few of our students ever gained a true grasp of the art. Many of our most talented were thwarted in their progress because of ego and/or their parents trying to control the flow of their dance experiences – wanting instant gratification and worthless kudos in the hear and now. I was always thinking long term, wanting them to reach greater heights, which would not only allow them to develop into true artists, but make dance more richly rewarding on a personal level. That kind of gratification beats any ego stroking around. But this kind of seasoning takes time, and can only be achieved with sacrifice. (Sacrifice is not a popular thing with people today.)  It was frustrating. Sad. I wanted so much more for my students than I could teach due to all the obstacles – not the least of which is the spoiled mindset of our contemporary culture today. (For the record, Mark felt the same.)


 


The kicker is, as a student, I’ve been on the other end of this struggle. I’ve had the same dense mentality in writing that I used to consider ignorance in dance. Go figure. I guess all art forms are the same in central ways. Art is so close to the ego and psyche, we are resistant to growth. We must accept our limits first, and that is painful. Great art is so much more than surface design or skill building. It is not just that you can execute a piece. It is not enough to copy what you see others do. Being an artist is about personal expression, truth, and creation from the gut. It isn’t what you can do on the surface, but what you understand underneath it all, which shades and influences the work, that makes a difference.   


 


Mark says I’ll be teaching writing before I’m done, and no doubt he is right. I’ll publish a few things, gain the credentials I need to feel qualified , and then, filled with a passion for art, I’ll want to share it with others. That is my way. I’m a natural leader – or a blustering bossy boots, however you want to view it. Either way, when the time comes, I’ll return to the other end of the spectrum, a leader once again in a war against mediocrity. It will be a new battle, but a battle I am familiar with, even so.  Life truly is circular, I guess.


 


But for now, I am still a student. I am working hard to swallow my frustration and shed my need for ego stroking. I am facing my demons, which involves accepting the limits of my talent and committing myself to facing my weaknesses rather than hiding behind my strengths. It’s hard. Painful. And so many days I just want to quit. Of course, I won’t.


 


Our guest speaker this term was Andre Debois III. He wrote “The House of Sand and Fog”. You may have seen the movie. He was such an inspiration. Upbeat, funny, and very real. He talked about how difficult the journey of developing your craft can be. And he talked about what an MFA can and can’t do for you. His honesty was insightful. Inspirational. Depressing too, but in a good way.


 


One of my previous mentors, William Lychack, taught a wonderful seminar called the Fraud Police. He gave us poignant readings that demonstrate that even great authors feel inadequate, questioning their talent and their work. It is a very dark business, this learning to write. Ravages your confidence. Shakes you to the core. His lecture was riveting. I wanted to go shake his hand, thank him, and apologize for being such a tree stump when he was mentoring me. Instead, I simply thanked him for the class. I’m an idiot. Don’t need to explain that to him. Nothing he didn’t already know.  


 


In Andre’s lecture, he told us about why he became a writer. He described how he felt the first time he wrote a story. He was in college, and had just turned an assignment in to his English teacher. Then, walking home he noticed a single leaf on a tree branch. Every blade of grass. The way the sun glistened off a car roof. It was as if he had abruptly awakened to the world. Everything was in focus. Intense – his emotions, observations.  He felt so very alive. Writing did that for him.


 


It does that for me too.


 


I listened to this successful author, not thinking he was lucky or had some amazing gift I shouldn’t dare aspire to. In fact, he didn’t seem any different from me – just further along the difficult writer’s journey. When he talked about how painful writing can be, how alone and heart wrenching it made a person feel at times, I knew I was not alone. My experiences are no different from others who’ve written before me, or from those that will come along after. Pain is a part of progress – a part of developing any artistic gift to a greater potential.


 


So . . . I will continue to face the discomfort, trusting what my teachers have told me. Determined. Without fear. Without regret. Most importantly, without doubt.


I won’t settle for “adequate” or seek a quick commercial fix – even though my ego longs for some kind of validation. People who do not understand all this will say, “What have you published?” And when I say, “Nothing,” they will smile politely, assuming this is a sign of failure. I’ll know differently.


 


That is what getting an MFA has done for me.

Embracing Rejection

Today, I finished reading the material to prepare for my final MFA residency. Whew! I must say the material seems far better than what I was reading a year and a half ago when I began. The Lesley University MFA program was just beginning at the time, so I suppose the criteria is getting stronger for acceptance– and those of us who are currently participating are improving too. That is good news for Lesley. And good news for any graduate of the program too. I am grateful I was able to be a part of this fine learning experience, despite the work, ego shattering insights, and the personal stress that came with pursuing this degree. Hats off to the director, Steven Cramer. No one knows better than I that an arts program is only as good as its director.


 


Today, I got a rejection letter from a literary magazine. I haven’t sent material out to contests or publishers since beginning this MFA, except for a few rare cases. I took a sabbatical from attempts to become established, because I considered this my learning time. But when my non-fiction teacher commented that he thought my piece “Threads of Meaning” was ready for publication, I was inspired. Feeling confident that afternoon, I sent it out to a literary contest – for fun. I think I have two more contest entries floating out there, but I didn’t expect much from the attempt, so I didn’t keep track.


 


Anyway, today I receive a form rejection from Alligator Juniper, a fine literary magazine published at <ST1Prescott College. At the bottom of the form letter is a handwritten note from the editor. It says”


    “Although we won’t be publishing “Threads of Meaning” it made it into our top twelve. I particularly loved the details of the different dyes on pg 5, the washing of the wool on that same page, and the wonderful detail of spinning wool directly off the rabbit in her lap. Just lovely. Finally, our staff had trouble with certain clichés or puns in the essay. Examples: “. . . wools been pulled over our eyes “(11) and “sheepish”. Best of Luck and we encourage you to submit again next year.” Melanie Bishop, Nonfiction editor.


 


Now, rather than feel disheartened or disappointed by this rejection, I was thrilled. They receive hundreds of entries to a contest like this, from hundreds of MFA students and aspiring literary writers (published and unpublished). I made top twelve? Amazing. And the editor thought enough of my work to tell me why it didn’t win, and that they still thought it had merit. I have the opportunity now to revise the piece, following their advice, and try again. Or I can ignore their advice and still try again. All I know is my rejections are coming from much better publications, and they are personal. That is progress. I know firsthand that you don’t bother to correct people who have no talent. A teacher or anyone in a position of authority tends to direct energies towards developing artists that they believe show promise. I know this because so many of our dance students used to get offended by corrections, as if that was our way of telling them they didn’t measure up, when in truth, correction were a great compliment. Therefore, I consider today’s rejection a love letter of sorts. We put things in perspective dependant upon life experience, after all.


 


I did use a few puns in my essay, but I was fully aware of them. I slipped them in for fun – never wanting to take myself too seriously.  I suppose I should take them out, but I will be sorry to do so. Makes the piece less filled with my personality – more sophisticated. Frankly, I strive to make everything I write down to earth and smile inspiring, yet meaningful too. Guess by putting “myself” into the dialogue, it becomes a bit corney. Ah well.


 


I do not consider myself a literary writer nor do I aspire to be one. I have a good handle on literary writing now, thanks to school. I have great respect for this mode of literature, and my understanding of it will influence me and shade my writing forever. It is like dance. I studied classical ballet and modern with serious intent, but in the end, I remained a jazz dancer. I became a rather sophisticated jazz dancer with a great deal of classical dance knowledge to draw upon, but still, I chose the more commercial venue. And that was the right choice for me. I never felt I was selling out or lacking the serious overtones associated with great art. I do not see art as so neatly defined, and I’ve never been one to fall for the sudo-sophisticated attitude that “pure” artists cling to for authenticity.  


 


I believe I will do much the same thing with writing as I did with dance – circle the beast fully, then settle where my instinct tells me I belong.  I can’t describe how comfortable I am with that decision, having explored all avenues of literary fiction. It is one thing to be a commercial hack because you do not have literary sensibilities or a foundation in sophisticated technique – but another thing altogether to use this broad base of understanding to write commercial fiction well. This is all theoretical, of course. I don’t know if I will write any better having pursued a formal education or not, but logic tells me it was my path to full development.   Feels that way, at least.


 


Today I signed up for my first conference in two years. It is conveniently in Atlanta so I’ll just drive in each day. This one is a serious literary conference for people who direct writing programs and run literary magazines, and for writers in MFA programs. A far cry from the romance conventions I began with. It is the AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) They are offering a huge selection of artsy fartsy classes which will stretch my exposure to subject matter. Primarily, I am excited about a few classes that discuss subjects I may consider for my senior seminar class. I am planning to discuss the possibility of a course that focuses on blogs as a path to stream of consciousness writing and how material from blogs can develop into work that is more serious. This may not fly, because my particular thesis doesn’t use blog material at all, and our seminar should be a development of our thesis study. But there is a class at the conference that discusses this Blog/literary growth issue, which may serve as support for it’s literary merit (and a means of research should I decide to go with it).I printed out the 45 page seminar class offerings, highlighting this session to show my mentor.  I’d sure enjoy researching the subject, anyway.  


 


I am also eyeing classes at the seminar about running a literary magazine and developing writing programs and teaching writing at the community level to disadvantaged groups. This is of particular interest to me. I am a natural teacher, after all, and I have a soft spot for those who need guidance and a leg up. Writing is power. And I’ve thought a lot about how I am going to “give back” to the art I love. Did it in a multitude of ways with dance. Must do it now with writing, ya know. It is a part of my personal commitment to Artistic Karma- a way to show gratitude to the heavens for my opportunities and gifts.    


 


Anyway, I was a big fat looser in the Alligator Juniper contest, but I feel good about it. And today, I got an idea for the senior thesis seminar I will begin preparing this term. Yippee.


I’m always thankful for small gifts, especially those hidden underneath unattractive wrapping paper.