Montana 1948: a novel

readingSome years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.

One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.

Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.

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Exquisite sound poetry ♫

you+me

Rose ave. is a collaboration between Alecia Moore (aka Pink) and Dallas Green (of City and Colour), and it is one of the most beautiful, and haunting, collections of songs I have ever heard. Singing of love and loss, Moore and Green — who call themselves you+me — showcase delicate, complex harmonies and an extraordinary vocal range. I especially like “Love Gone Wrong” for its simple but catchy “baby…baby” lyrics and for its use of point/counterpoint. And, hard as it might be to believe, they go Sade one better in their harrowing version of her “No Ordinary Love.” If you’d like to hear the full album, click here.

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Jocelyn

joss stoneI’m a big fan of Joss Stone, the 27-year-old English singer/songwriter whose music more than tips a hat to the likes of Aretha, Dusty, and Janis but whose bluesy soulfulness is uniquely her own. I’m mesmerized by her sound, which recalls the music of my childhood, and by the barefooted, flower-in-the-hair performances that take me back to my hippie youth, such as it was.

For a while, though, I didn’t even know Joss Stone was a singer because I first saw her in Showtime’s The Tudors, where, during seasons three and four, she was cast as Anne of Cleaves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII — who cruelly contrived to get rid of her because he found her unattractive. (“I like her not!” bellows actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s King Henry to anyone who will listen.) Hers was such a poignant, understated performance that I couldn’t have even imagined such a sexy singer would be hiding beneath the dull, thick costumes.

Sexy, indeed! … “but not slutty,” as one man pointed out in a comment he posted on YouTube — a comment that has me thinking about what it means for a woman to be just enough sexy. It’s that Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene thing, the angel/whore split that dogs our collective unconscious and confuses even the best of men.

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“Real love is no easy path.”

Jeff Brown_9-20-14

Something I read today on Facebook from Jeff Brown:

“Sometimes people walk away from love because it is so beautiful that it terrifies them. Sometimes they leave because the connection shines a bright light on their dark places and they are not ready to work them through. Sometimes they run away because they are not developmentally prepared to merge with another — they have more individuation work to do first. Sometimes they take off because love is not a priority in their lives — they have another path and purpose to walk first. Sometimes they end it because they prefer a relationship that is more practical than conscious, one that does not threaten the ways that they organize reality. Because so many of us carry shame, we have a tendency to personalize love’s leavings, triggered by the rejection and feelings of abandonment. But this is not always true. Sometimes it has nothing to do with us. Sometimes the one who leaves is just not ready to hold it safe. Sometimes they know something we don’t — they know their limits at that moment in time. Real love is no easy path — readiness is everything. May we grieve loss without personalizing it. May we learn to love ourselves in the absence of the lover.”

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Wow

Jaguar

but the best encounter

Diane

I’ve ever had

the best one

was when

I was tracking a jaguar

in the jungle

by myself

which I usually don’t do

I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar

I’d never seen before and

I just took off thinking okay

I’ll track it a little while but

I shouldn’t be alone but

I ended up tracking it for hours and

 it was getting dark and

I didn’t have a flashlight and

I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so

I turn around and

there’s the jaguar

in back of me

wow

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(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )

The awakening of conscience

remorse

On a long walk today I thought about how difficult it is to develop a genuine conscience. It comes unbidden but only after we have worked long and deeply on ourselves — perhaps with a spiritual teacher to guide us — and only after we have been made to suffer the truth of what we are and what we are not.

When I think back on my own feelings of remorse, I am reminded of one event in particular, when I behaved very badly with a college roommate — a kind, gentle, and unassuming soul if ever there was one. Sometime after we had gone our separate ways, she appeared at my door with a man she met while traveling in France; he was, I have to say, on the very other side of beyond sexy, and throughout the evening I flirted shamelessly, outrageously, with him — all the while pretending, as I must have done, that she wasn’t even in the room, my friend.

When I remember this misadventure, I am pained more than anything else by what my behavior said about how little I valued her and about how unwilling I was to see her as a woman who could be desired by such a handsome man. In fact, I remember feeling something of a shock when the two of them bade goodnight and went off to bed together.

Over the years I have thought to contact her so I could apologize, but I have been stopped by my sense that the truest apology would be more hurtful than the original trespass because I would have to acknowledge how I must have had to diminish her sufficiently in my own mind to do what I had done.

We do this all the time: diminish and dismiss others in order to justify our own vast cruelties, which is murder bit by bit.

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“Hideously beautiful”

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin is not for everyone, but, once seen, it seeps and settles.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the alien femme fatale who is somehow birthed onto the west coast of Scotland for the apparent sole purpose of hunting down lonely men in her white Ford Transit and luring them back to her dark, oozy flat. What she does with them once there we cannot know for sure, but evisceration seems to be a part of it.

Yet trying to understand its precise meaning is a fool’s errand because the power of the movie is in the evocative: in the dark, rainy streetscapes; in the dialogue that sounds sieved through gauze; in the menacing soundtrack that is like “a locust plague of dry tremolos, the strings pressing down until the sound has reached a roar.”

Or in a startling erection, a hand pierced by a rose thorn, a vacant stare above blood-red lips, a rapist gone silent and scared.

What is most potent about Under the Skin, though, is its insistence on showing us at every turn the terrible and terrifying power of sex — a power we little understand, and one that awakens in us that which is at once alien and deeply human.

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It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

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A dark preoccupation

guns-more-guns

Yesterday, a 20-year-old runner from Fiji was shot to death in California. He was about to start school at the University of Louisiana. Last Tuesday, a lone killer gunned down a 14-year-old freshman at Reynolds High School in Oregon. On June 5th, a gunman who wrote in his journal “I just want people to die…” killed a Seattle Pacific University student. Days before that slaying, another madman with guns (and knives) murdered six University of California, Santa Barbara, students. And, a few days prior to those killings, a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl was shot on a playground.

In total, there have been 74 school shootings since 26 individuals, including 20 first-graders, died inside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, according to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. Just in 2014 alone, there have been 37 gun-related incidents at schools; 79 shooting-free school days out of the total 116 since Jan. 1. Thirty-one states have experienced school shootings since Newtown. ~ Quote

When I realized I was losing track of the number of children who had been gunned down around the US, I thought the very least I could do in a country that has lost its collective mind on the subject of the Second Amendment would be to send out regular tweets, such as the one below, chronicling the instances of baby murder and calling on members of Congress to stand up to the NRA:

Twitter: the good, the bad, and the ugly

twitter icon

Although I signed up for a Twitter account in 2011, it was only a few weeks back that I resolved to tweet. In part I had been feeling out of the stream of life and thought I needed to participate somehow in what has become such an important part of our global culture—and, to my surprise, not only among young people.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, I also had some sense that “tweeting” would help me become a better writer in the same way that composing a three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku might. In fact, writing something compelling and marrowy in 140 characters on a topic that would be of interest to (theoretically) hundreds or thousands of others is no small task. Nor can one underestimate the inherent potency of the hashtag and its capacity to inform and enlarge the impact of any given tweet.

Now that I am “following” some 150 people or entities (mostly other writers and news sources, with Lena Dunham thrown in the mix), I have been made very dizzy by the sheer quantity of information—much of it otherwise inaccessible—literally at my fingertips. The Twitterverse, it seems, is a place where you can learn about the news almost before it happens.

There is quite a lot of dreck to poke around in, though, which means one has to be attentive, thoughtful, discriminating, smart—and triply so. Plus, with so much material to investigate, it becomes difficult to know where to put one’s attention so as not to scatter energy. Or so as not to become buried and bobbling in material that flows down like lava and carries with it bits of the sacred along with the profane. I have also discovered that, as in life, barkers and hucksters abound: My first five “followers” were thinly disguised porn sites looking to see if I wanted to have a good time.

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