I’m a writer in search of a subject.
I’ve read a lot in different genres looking for ideas. Nada. I’ve invited the pen just to flow and see what emerges. Double nada. I have this notion that I’m skimming along the surface of my life without pausing to notice what is really happening that’s worth sharing with others.
Writing for me is a grounding agent, a form of expression that captures the essence of an idea and passes it along to the reader intact. As Boris Pasternak said about writing “Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”
Japanese poetry uses a stylized haiku form to capture the essence of an experience as it occurs. When my writing offers an experience that the reader understands, the reader starts to look for the “haiku moment” in all of his experiences. Life becomes deeper, richer, and more experiential.
I recently finished reading a book of spiritual essays selected by Brian Doyle, and titled A Sense of Wonder, The author of the second essay describes an interchange he experienced in a hotel elevator with 10 Amish girls (age eight) on their way to a dance recital. In the short elevator ride down, he and they make a connection, leaving him full of admiration and love for their honesty, sunny dispositions, and willingness to engage with any adult that will engage with them. That was his haiku moment. He told the story simply, got out of the way, and in his retelling gave me a gift of living inside a magical moment as it was happening.
Writers talk about great moments and the risk that we will be too preoccupied or too distracted to acknowledge them as they are occurring. There are many moments which may not qualify as “great”, but they are precisely what makes up our life. You can’t will yourself to be aware. But you can practice awareness so that when the moment occurs your awareness is already heightened. Without awareness, life events slip through our fingers and, at days’ end, our fingers are empty. With awareness, we can appreciate the miracles occurring all around us. Our fingers can caress them, our minds can understand them, and our hearts can embrace them.
I chose three events that occurred within the last several days. I wanted to relive those experiences as memory, and explore whether the memory captured the feelings at those moments, or was simply a travelogue of what I did or said – separated from the charge that existed when those moments occurred.
The first was a social meeting over coffee with a retired Oregon teacher. We have been meeting about once a month and, although we bring no agenda to our meetings, time moves effortlessly. We are at the edge of intimacy, referring to - but not yet talking about – how it feels for me to live with Parkinson’s or my friend to live with cancer. I have shared a little about my feelings connected to moving across the country to live near one of my daughters, and how the friends built and nurtured over a lifetime become more difficult to maintain when the connecting link is electronic and not tactile. That is a deep well, and while I have peered over the edge, I’m not yet ready to clamber down the moss-covered sides to explore its depth, either by myself or with others.
Something sweet is being created, but it will take nurturing to ripen. I am mindful that time is a precious commodity of limited duration. However we choose to measure time, I am nearer the end than the beginning. With my remaining allotment, I need to determine what aspects of my character I choose to share at the beginning of a relationship, and what aspects are withheld until an impulse moves the conversation into unchartered space.
Sharing requires trust. While it’s not an exact science, sharing needs to emanate from both sides or it quickly withers. Sometimes information needs a response so that we understand each other more fully, and sometimes the information proffered is simply held as a gift. I don’t know any way to shorten the process of developing friendship or even why one might try. Construction on faulty foundations are subject to collapse when stressed. But when the foundation is strong and settled, friendship enjoys a flexibility that is critical to its success.
If I were to think of our meetings as a haiku, I would move in the direction of stillness – even though our time is taken up in motion. We are too old to indulge in puffery, we feel no rush to seize the silences that soften our relationship, and we leave satisfied that our coffee hour has provided us with a sense of serenity rather than energy.
As to the second event, I have been teaching a six-week course on writing as a form of self- discovery. With the last class now completed, I reviewed the curriculum:
write haikus and limericks;
co-author a piece with another student;
develop details in your writing, using the five senses;
draw on metaphor and simile to make writing come alive;
write on a particular subject each week between sessions.
The teaching style, approach, and ground rules worked. Students wanted to know
whether I would offer the class again because they wanted to be a part of the experience. No fancy props. No magic. Only an 81/2 X 11 notepad and a writing instrument. The last class ended tenderly, with appreciations offered all around.
Ten years ago I didn’t know enough to teach this course. Ten years from now I expect to be hearing celestial harps. What mattered is the dynamic that occurred each time we met, what was learned, what surprised, what disappointed. These are the true values I can distill from the experience. I regret not thanking each participant individually for dutifully completing each week’s homework assignment, for sharing their feelings that some of the subjects I asked them to write about were hard, but they dug in and prevailed, and for contributing to the group’s growth by giving voice to their writings. When one woman wrote about her experience of being molested as a child, the room grew silent as she trusted us to listen, but not interrupt. At that moment we exchanged gifts – ours of silence and hers a part of personal history.
As a teacher I want to leave participants with at least two elements they did not know about when they began the course. First, I want them to learn techniques that will improve their writing, and second, I want them to be fired up by their potential so that they are motivated to continue writing without a “teacher” giving prompts. If I am successful in achieving those goals, like the fire watchers of another era, the spark that moves people to write will have been nurtured, maintained, and put in the hands of another generation.
Writing is a deeply personal experience. It recalls old information from a new perspective. Subject matter is a matter of personal choice. We can pick safe topics, funny topics, lighthearted, inspirational or painful topics. My job is to hold the space in which the writing and sharing occur as a safe environment, with each participant honoring the reader who is revealing some personal aspect of their life. When the class goes well, I have kept the space safe. When people are reluctant to share, I have been remiss somewhere in the safety protocol. When people are eager to share, the space we sit in can touch the sacred.
I live in a residential condominium apartment in Eugene, OR. Shortly after my wife and I moved into our unit, New Yorker magazine published a long article describing how major earthquakes function, and writing in detail about the Cascadia subduction zone, an area right near our apartment where the earthquake will be strongest. That zone experiences really big quakes on average every 243 years. Right now, we are some 315 years into that cycle, or to express these numbers differently, we are significantly overdue for a major quake.
Some 18 months before we made our purchase of a unit, the Board had considered, and rejected a proposal to buy earthquake insurance and pay the premium it would cost to secure coverage. Many people were disappointed and surprised at the decision. As we learned more about the potential damage a major quake could cause, my wife and I were among a dissident group that wanted to revisit the decision. I was invited by the Chair of the condominium’s Insurance Committee to work with the Chair and resubmit the proposal for fresh consideration, and delve more deeply into the terms, cost, and coverage of such a policy.
We vetted the issues, responded to questions in writing, and distributed our findings to all owners. The Chair and I concluded that the cost of covering a year’s premium was a bargain when compared to the risk of a valuable asset being destroyed without coverage to mitigate the loss. The vote was close, but the opportunity to purchase earthquake insurance was still turned down. Sometimes bad decisions prevail.
My first reaction was to be upset – I felt that all of us might pay a heavy price for saving premiums if a heavy earthquake resulted in considerable damage. My second reaction was to be upset at my upset. There’s an element of hubris in my grasping on to the rightness of my views. It ends all conversation, blocks my ability to remain open, and limits my ability to learn from “defeat” more than I would have learned from “success.”
What tied these three events together? At first I just noticed three distinct events with no obvious connection points. When I looked more closely I began to understand that all three stories were about relationships, about the desire to connect, and the curiosity to see where such connections might lead. The relationships were at different levels and presented themselves with different qualities of intensity.
The first involved an intimate moment as a friendship is being forged. The second demonstrated how I bring a class together and how the students feel about themselves in that environment. The third was the least intimate – and the hardest to keep on course. It’s also the only one where I couldn’t control the outcome. While I wanted to nudge the decision in a particular direction, I also realized the more I favored a particular outcome the less I could present both sides of the issue neutrally and fairly. I suddenly appreciated the quote that said “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”
Writing has been my métier for discovering channels that tie us together and give us the space to explore our interconnections. Events are easy to describe but hard to understand. Words are the bridge that connect events and their meanings. I can write a thousand words that dance around meaning but never touches it. All the while, the mind is working to understand the feelings that accompany the events, capture the essence of the experience, and find the one right word that knocks away the thousand wrong ones. And when you finally find the right word – savor the moment and appreciate the learning. And if you dare, laugh at yourself and consider why it was so hard to learn.
July, 2017 ©
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