Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Month of Doing Anew

I woke this morning feeling like January was slipping away before it had even started. So the Hans Brinker in me stuck my finger in that dike as I began to clear the clutter off my desk. Under one pile, I pulled out Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing to return it to the bookcase after having lain on my desk for a month or more unopened. I didn't get very far, however; because for the hundredth time, I opened it and, if you've ever read it, you know what happened next. Yes, I got caught again in Bradbury’s zest for writing, for life, since they were one and the same for him.  I began reading some of the many places I had magic markered. If there was ever a book that walked its talk, that is it.

Most all of us want something different as each year starts. We are keenly aware our life does not meet our expectations for it. But we always start in the same mood, disposition, and doubt that caused us to start listing our resolutions to begin with, the only thing new or different being the sheet of paper on which we’re writing. So let’s do something different this year. Let’s just start doing what we are waiting for. No plans, no schedules, just do – as Yoda told us.
Here’s how dear Ray Bradbury puts it with a few insertions to make it clear this works for anyone:
If you are writing (living, working, parenting) without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer (alive, a worker, a parent). It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market (bank account), or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie (what someone else thinks), that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. A writer (and everyone else) should be excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.

If you expect something different you must fight through the fog of sameness and complacency and be different right from the start. You wonder how, since this appears to be the problem? You’re telling me you don’t already know how to laugh, to dance to music, to sigh over poetry, to feel the penetrating power of beauty to lift you tall? Use them then every time you begin to head into the weeds. That’s what I’m going to do.

Then say to yourself every morning as you rise, “I will not end this month the same person I began it.” 

Change is not a future event. How else do you think we change, but by doing right now? In 25 words or less: How do you want it to be different? Get clarity on that and then, live in that way right now. If it lasts only minutes the first little while, that’s still minutes of a different way of being. Each time you pick yourself up and start again, now it is anew. This is how change happens, spontaneously but driven by the intensity of your desire. Keep your vision close to your toes, shuffle if you have to, but be a doing that is your being, the you that yearns to feel alive and fearless. Your actions inform you of who you are.

Stick with me this month, and I’ll share with you what I find along the way to know myself anew. Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a great place to start whether you’re a writer or not. His enthusiasm for life will infect you and what a glorious infection to have.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Short Story - Just Max

“He could have come to Jesus but instead he come to me.” 

Those were the words that Maddie June Stanley said that day offhandedly as I rose to leave. I had been visiting with Maddie June all morning. We’d been talking about old times, her bringing me up to date, since it had been years since our last visit. But now it was time for me to go. We hugged, and I began walking toward the hall when she said what she just said. The words stopped me, and I turned in the doorway of her huge pre-modern kitchen and stared at her. As she spoke, she began sliding a fresh cup of hot, black coffee across the rough-topped, old maple table that served as her version of a work island. She was never one to ask, but it was clear she was asking now. I dropped my purse off my shoulder and sat back down. This woman who had mothered me so graciously years earlier now needed me to give her the attention a good daughter would.

“He was 10 or so, street-weary but road-wise,” she continued. “I cain’t even imagine how that baby boy was out there all by hisself with so many of them government agencies hunting down kids and pickin' ‘em up. When I asked his name, he said Just Max. He meant it just like that–Just Max. And that day started looping me off in a new direction and ain’t never looped me back.”

Maddie June just came to life as she talked about this boy. Her eyes twinkled like I’d never seen. She’d always been warm-hearted, but it was like something was missing from her life. She mothered so many people that it never occurred to me she still wanted a kid of her own. You see, she ran a boarding house in an era when boarding houses were remnants of western movies or what pre-dated hotels in the east ends of most towns and cities. But Maddie June wasn't someone to be dictated to by anyone’s conventions except her own. When her husband got crushed to death at the steel foundry in Bessemer, just outside of Birmingham, she used the one thing she had in this world, a rambling three-story house, and turned it into a place where strangers entered and left as family. That’s the only frame of reference Maddie June has—family. She was a beacon in the dark nights of many a soul, and I suspect that’s how Just Max found her.

I never knew how old Maddie June was. Sometimes it seemed like she just came into the world straight grown up and settled into the slot prepared for her. Aside from a few wrinkles and a bit thinner hair than when we first met, she looked just like she did that day I climbed up her front stairs praying for a new beginning. She was always forthcoming with me and everyone else, for that matter. So when she started telling me her tale about Just Max I had no reason to disbelieve, for I too had found this old house one drippy, cold January morning years ago, and she took me in that day and raised me until I could go it on my own. When I moved away finally, we kept in touch with yearly phone calls until this day when I finally got to visit her after all these years.

She got back to her story. “He was sandy-haired, skinny as a pole, with a face that was mostly eyes – big, wary-looking brown eyes, the color of blackstrap molasses. They looked too old for such a young’un. I spect he’d seen more than his share. The first meal I made ‘em disappeared like he was a hoover; it got vacuumed up so fast. He weren't given to talking like some kids his age who don’t give a body a moment’s peace. If he wasn't eatin’, he just stared straight ahead like he was looking into something I couldn't see. Occasionally he’d sigh.

“I have this little room off the backside of the kitchen here. That one there.” She pointed to a renovation she’d made since I’d lived here. “It was warm in there and caught the east light each morning making it easier to decide to give the day a chance. I coulda used that after Joshua got killed, when deciding whether to git up or not was still an issue. Just Max looked like he too might need some help from Mother Sun to make that choice each day, so I stuck him in there, sorta like a hen tucking her chicks under her wings since I spend most my time in this here kitchen. You know.

“Early on he got useful like he knowed if he started helping me out, I’d be less likely to turf him. I think, as I look back, being turned out was something he knew all too well. Yet, like a young colt, being too fenced in didn't work for him neither. So I just let him make his place in amongst mine, and Just Max and I got real comfortable.”

Maddie June stopped talking as she lit up a cigarette, perched it on the edge of her lips and began making too much noise with her big cleaver de-boning chickens for the stew she was preparing, to be able to talk. I shifted around on that stone-hard chair, trying to get my behind in a place it could stand for the rest of her story. Once she didn't need her focus on the cleaver, she blew a long stream of smoke off her last drag, stubbed the cigarette so she’d be able to re-light it and nodded her head as if she had been seeking agreement with herself and finally got it.

“I don’t sleep far from this back room. You know, just across the hall in what used to be, when Joshua was alive, a workroom of sorts where he built his model ships. That foundry cast ship parts after the war, and Joshua caught the bug. He fell in love with them big boats even though all he ever seen was pictures of ‘em. Some of his models is still out there in the living room. He did real good work. But as I was saying, I was close enough to Just Max’s room to hear all the yelling, then crying then yelling some more that first night he was here. It didn't surprise me. A child that young in his position must a see’d more than he cared to about the world’s mean side. But that first time, I only listened, nothing else, not wanting to butt into his life juss yet. But it was scary, whatever was going on. The next couple of nights it happened again, like he was having a discussion with someone, him yelling, then crying and whimpering like a dog that just been whipped. But after that first week, it all but stopped.

“The days turned into weeks and then into months. Just Max came and went as it suited him. He always checked with me first thing each morning, however, to see what he could help me with. When he took on a bigger job, I’d give him a bit of money so he’d have something in his pocket other than lint. I also found some decent clothes for him at Salvation Army and a warm coat. Winter wasn't too far off.”

Maddie June stopped to refill my coffee cup and hers and set a plate of fresh baked biscuits in front of me. I was thinking of all I’d planned to do on this short holiday I was taking, seeing a few other old friends and eating at my favorite place in Birmingham, but I knew I was needed here. So I relaxed into what felt like was gonna be a long story.

Maddie June took a big swallow of coffee and started again. “Can you believe it, he stayed for four years and everthing went smooth. That boy got under my skin and into my heart like no one I ever knowned.

“Then one day, some man, a Mr. Jackson come to my house, flashed his credentials. He said he was looking for a boy named Peter Stanley. The man was one of them Dick Tracy types, you know. I thought he was going be the truant officer for I never did get that boy to go to school. He seemed to learn what all he needed on his own. So I asked this Mr. Jackson why he was bothering me ‘cause I didn't have no kids of my own and no relatives ‘cepting my dead husband.

 “‘Would that husband have been Joshua Stanley?’

“‘Why yes sir, it would. Why you asking? He’s been dead for years.’

“He didn't say no more that day, that Mr. Jackson. Juss nodded his head and said something about checking his records and that maybe he’d be back. When Just Max came in that night I mentioned that a Mr. Jackson had been round to see me. Just Max stopped surveying the fridge like it was the display at the automat and turned slowly to face me. Just Max was fourteen by then but always seemed older than his years. He pulled the chair back from the table and set down on it like he was even older."

Finish the story here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Writer or Pretender

Shakespeare asked this same question another way: to be or not to be. It is as fundamental a question as there ever was, from determining the reality of our existence to simply sorting out whether we are a writer or a dreamer. I mention this because a recent blog by Russell Blake put this question squarely in my face, once again.

In it, he is talking about being a writer in 2015 and what writers will face as well as what is required of them if they are to succeed. Russell isn't a speculator. He started out like most of today’s wannabees, but unlike most now makes his living from writing. The difference between him and others is he knew what he wanted and set his life up to reflect that. He also busts several myths  about writing when he states he is now associated with several writers whose names would be unfamiliar to us and yet they make an excellent income from writing even in their basic anonymity. Russell talks about why.

What Russell made clear to me is I have yet to set an intent to be a writer. By that I mean I still have two columns on my sheet: the reasons I could succeed and the reasons that might hold me back. When you set an intent, however, not only do you not have two columns, you don’t even have such sheet of paper. There is no energy pouring into resistance or validation. There is only the determination of what is yours to do next, which is determined intuitively not through rational thought, and then doing it. By intuitive, I mean “it comes to you,” not in some hocus pocus manner, but rather you just bloody know that right now you need to be doing such and such, and you do it. And when that piece comes to fruition, you see the next one and do that. Ironically, the path to true success is identical to esoteric principles or, said another way, the path of truth. Simple, honest, and doable just not necessarily easy.

I italicized the word true preceding ‘success’ for a reason. I suspect that most people who dream of being a successful writer have created what that life would be like by imagining a life without what they despise about their present situation, thus offering the antithesis. That’s how we create a life using our intellect. But any time I have truly succeeded, I always noticed that what I got never looked like what I imagined, but if I reached that place intuitively, it didn't matter. What success demanded of me I was willing to do because it was integral to me, real and compelling. But what success demanded of me from a project arrived at intellectually — my plan — never panned out. That’s where resistance arises and usually drags us to a halt.

I believe there are always two groups in the arts: those who are painters and those who want to paint a picture; those who are writers and those who want to write a book. It behooves us to be honest with ourselves and make that determination once and for all. For the life of a writer is whatever it is, the difference is that if you are a writer, you’ll do it. If you are a pretender, mostly you’ll talk about doing it. And that’s where I find myself this Sunday morning: asking am I a writer or a pretender. The answer to that question must then be reflected in my life, or said another way; if I am a writer, I must get in touch with the next step and just bloody do it.

In his most current blog, Russell Blake talks about a writer's life currently. Take a look at what he describes as inherent in a writer’s life remembering it’s the life he’s now living. The reality may not be so appealing to you. Russell is a writer not because his income results from book sales, but because he knows he’s a writer, and his life reflects that awareness at every turn. Mine doesn't yet, and that’s what stands before me. Earning my living has never before been unrelated to the career I am drawn to, and I allowed this to confuse me.

You too may now want to ask: what stands before you? Be curious. Be honest. A fulfilling life comes from one that reflects that clarity. And if it's fulfilling, it really doesn't matter what name you give to yourself in that life.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

One of Fear’s Ugliest Faces – Racism

by Christina Carson
My strongest emotions have always arisen around the topic of racism. I grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but my small town had an unusually large Black population as it was one of the ends of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. One day, a friend of my mother’s took us into the basement of the only hotel in our town at that time and showed us a two foot square iron door, much like you’d see on a wood cook stove or steel boiler, set into the wall about five feet up from the floor. She lifted the latch and the youthful eyes of this unseasoned pre-teen peered into a pitch dark squared-up tunnel big enough only to crawl through. I shuddered, my claustrophobic tendencies filling my mind with a sense of horror. It was the fifties and innocence was still one of the options offered on life’s multiple choice test of reality, but as I became increasingly aware of the nature of racism, that option was soon lost to me.

My formal introduction to racism occurred one typical Sunday morning at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was the late ‘50’s, and we were all waiting for the service to begin. In the pre-service quiet, a knock at the main door caught the attention of most of the congregation. An usher hastened across the room to answer it. His voice was that of a loud stage whisper, so the back half of the church for sure overhead the conversation. It was the usher suggesting to the Black woman outside she might be more comfortable at the Second Presbyterian Church on the other side of town. I looked up at the adults surrounding me. Not one returned my questioning stare. I told friends years later that only thing I remembered learning at church was the meaning of hypocrisy, and after that I wasn't much interested in anything else they had to say.

When I was sixteen, I had another experience unique to me, not in a church but in our county hospital awaiting surgery. Two Black orderlies, a middle aged woman every morning and an older gentleman each evening spoke to me in a way that offered me kindness of a sort I’d never experienced. It sheltered me like the wing of a mother hen tucking her chicks tight up under her, and for the first time in my life I felt the wonder of what is was like to have someone care about me for no reason other than they did. That was as profound an experience as the one in my church except this one was all about love.

It wasn't until grade 12 that I realized my parents were racists. Growing up, I heard from them that Blacks were fine in their place, yet no one under questioning would commit to what or where their place was. So I kept pushing. They stood revealed the day the first Black family moved into our neighborhood. An open house was held to welcome them to the community, put on by the local Quakers, only no one came. Shaming is a mean-spirited act, but I shamed my parents that day and I meant to. I felt, in my seventeen-year-old view of the world I had been betrayed. The fact that I lived among racists appalled me. The fact that I had been so blind to it appalled me as well.

What washed up all these memories was an article written by Jesse Kornbluth, a blogger I enjoy reading (The Head Butler).  His entry of 11/12/14 contained a piece of journalism he’d written in 1987, an article on Michael Donald, the last Black man to be hanged in Alabama and Donald’s mother’s work to bring the murderers to justice (The Woman Who Beat the Klan).

I've grown to understand a lot over the years, and it is now clear to me where the meanness of human beings comes from and why. I also know it will not change unless we get curious enough to understand and adopt our true nature as our way of being in this world rather than this egoic presentation we’re been conditioned to believe is us. Until that time, fear in all its hundreds of forms will continue to own us, control us, and direct our choices, with racism being one of its ugliest. But I’m here to tell you, we have a race of people among us who still model to a great degree what it looks like when you live from respect and love without conditions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested that his people could work actively in their endeavors toward freedom, but equally powerful was the more passive route of seducing through kindness. I have known that sweet seduction, and my life has been enriched and ennobled by it. Why not yours too?

RACISM: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.