Questions I Ask Myself

I haven't written a Weekly Good in awhile. This one is about how the big picture changes when the questions you ask of yourself as a writer change.

One of the curviest roads in world, from my Morocco journey. Entering the writing life is a lot like driving this road: it can either be scary or thrilling.  

One of the curviest roads in world, from my Morocco journey. Entering the writing life is a lot like driving this road: it can either be scary or thrilling.
 

Change, lots of it.

Things have been changing very quickly in my life and I'm not really sure where to start. Or if I even should explain anything at all. I've been thinking about questions. Questions I asked myself a year ago and new questions I'm asking myself now.

Twelve months ago, I was so excited to get something published and it was fun to play with where I wanted to publish things or even different genres--fiction one day, a travel story the next day. I wasn't thinking about the big picture. I didn't even know what the big picture was. People told me what they thought it would be for me, but it felt very far away and foreign. Different landscape and language.

Now, I think about the big picture all the time. And I've come to see that the right questions are very important in defining what that picture is and how big it can become.

Back at the start of all of this, when I wrote a plan of what I wanted, I felt somewhat ridiculous, as though I was writing things for someone else's life, not mine. Things that seemed preposterous. All those goals were accompanied by questions, which looking back seem obvious to answer, but at the time, they were new.


Should I publish in that journal?

The difficulty of deciding whether to write for free and when. This was answered very quickly with the piece I published in The Nervous Breakdown, which was fiction and kind of an experiment in breaking out of travel to see if I could do it. It was easy to do and putting it on a site that had good literary connections--despite not paying--was practical and logical.

Is that anthology something I should pursue?

The decisions of looking at the quality of work of others that will accompany my own, and having to determine if that meets the standard of what is expected of me. I was asked to be several anthologies that were not travel anthologies but memoir, and I turned them down, because I felt it was not the direction I wanted to take my work. I think being asked is very nice, but to say no is even nicer, because it is saying yes to yourself and your larger goals.

Is it ok to tell that editor what I think?

Saying what I think and measuring it carefully--talking about controversial ideas and approaches. Having self doubt and wondering if I'm even the person to have that conversation. Realizing that if I'm in the position to think the thoughts and articulate answers, then I am the right person. Albeit, measured.

That advice I asked that person for wasn't very useful. Should I ask them for advice again?

When you are new at something, you look to the established people in whatever genre you are writing for advice. At first, when I started sharing my work, I saw myself in the world of travel blogging. But I quickly realized that was not a good fit for what I do. I went through a lot of advice at that juncture, trying to decide where I fit and some of that advice was very limited. In particular, I realized that I wasn't a travel blogger, I was a literary writer who writes travel things. I had to learn to seek out advice that worked with that. Now I focus on literary writers, adventure/travel writers, and essayists for advice, as well as editors. I don't pay attention to advice outside of those folks, because it doesn't apply and it's focused on things I'm not. Works for others, isn't going to work for me. [Note: travel writer doesn't mean travel blogger. These are two very different approaches to writing about places and peoples, and using travel blogging principles to write literary travel pieces actually hurts the work--and vice versa. These two schools are in same universe, but not on the same planet. This was a steep learning curve for me and is an important daily consideration in how to tell a "travel" story, who my audience is, the longevity factor of a piece.]

Should I bare my soul about that story?

The difficulty of writing memoir and deciding where to share it. Recently I wrote a blog post for a friend, and realized that it would be the last time I would write something so personal that would not end up on my own site or in a book. Even writing it, I was aware I had to set some of the story aside, for later. Personal stories have value, not just personal value, but dollar value. So now I've decided to save them for books and larger narratives.

Is social media helpful?

Obviously, I've decided that it is. It is powerful, if you use it well. People make a lot of mistakes, the main one being they only keep people in their circle who are just like them. That is a tremendous error. It just means the same fifty people are sharing what you write, over and over again. That says nothing about the quality of what you are producing. Get a poet to read a travel story, and then you know you've written well.

Who should I network with?

One thing I learned right away is that some people are important to know, and others are not. Just because other people think someone has influence means very little unless they actually do. And even if they do, that influence might be relatively small--it might be that they are at the top of the heap, but when you look around, that heap is a very small heap. The big picture forced me to have to predict where the influence of others might land and if it that influence was worth maintaining. Oftentimes, it was not. I learned to do my own homework about which editors, publications, and writers to network with. One thing that I came to embrace fully was that I write for the whole world, and I'm interested in connecting more in that world. This means not staying specifically with an American audience, but shifting simultaneously to  Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and India. Of course I am American, and I will always write for American publications and readers, but I still remember the day and Indian editor called me and asked me to write for him. This was the first step to crossing over into an international network.

What is "real" writing? Can writing be bad? Is everyone a writer? What should I write?

I asked myself this a lot the first year. I saw a great deal of writing which was badly written and I felt terrible that I thought it wasn't good. It was hard to think that. I'd always had the idea that anyone could write: what I learned is that yes, anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. Sometimes in certain genres, certain writers are celebrated as being really wonderful and yet they are mediocre, more about marketing themselves than creating quality.  On the other hand, I read many writers who wrote stunning pieces that were simply articles. So I learned that real writing is not about the topic or the style of the writer, it's only about: do they write well or not--and do they write about A, B, C is a new way? Discovering this was a tremendous relief after entering the writing world publically very quickly and realizing I was going to have to write many different kinds of things. Anything one writes can be fabulous, but only if the writer makes it so.

How should I deal with criticism?

I'm actually writing a post on this for next week and I hope you check back for it. But the basics are: the better you get and the more published you are, the more readers you will have. And for every hundred who love you, ten will hate you. And then there is that layer of readers who don't hate you but are bothered by your success and like to send you little notes correcting your grammar, set up almost-hate mail campaigns on social media, and so forth. It's all relatively petty and at the end of the day, you have to ignore such pleas for attention, even if it grates on your nerves. It's not part of the big picture, but how I deal with it is. This has caused me to ask questions: why do people feel insecure? Why do they compare? What is the benefit that they get from such interactions? I realized it's important to understand the why, not just try to ignore it.


I figured out the answers to those questions organically, as the year passed. And now I look at that list of goals I wrote down when I started and am not surprised that I met every single goal. Not because I'm particularly driven, it is just what happened. Maybe too, the big picture wasn't that big a year ago, so the goals were easier.

Instead what excites me is writing out the next set of goals, which surpass anything I have ever thought of. This time I am including things which I could not imagine doing, just for the hell of it, to see if I will really do them. This time I'm forcing myself to move outside of my own expectations and the expectations of others: limitless. Why not?


There are different questions this time around:

What is an explorer?

How do the voices of women fit into the larger literary travel narrative?

How far can I push myself?

How will travel publishing change in the next five years? How is what I'm doing helping that?

What defines adventure?

How can I tell the stories of others differently?

What is my network going to look like? How can I tie this into being a citizen of the world?

How are my concerns about women's rights and the environment going to play into my work?

What books will I write and who should I choose as influencers for those books?

How does physicality play into the narrative of a journey?

How many books do I want to write and what locations will I choose for those settings?

How much memoir will I share within those books?

Which editors do I want to work with and what kinds of conversations and connections do I need to make so that I can collaborate with them? (or) How can I maintain the editor relationships I have now, and how can I take them farther?

Now that I have my agent, what kinds of discussions do I need to have with her? How will she influence my publishing decisions and even my schedule?

 

Those are my meandering thoughts tonight. I'm on a thrill ride, and it's not going to end anytime soon. Just saying that and acknowledging it makes it easier to ask the hard questions and seek the deep answers. It's interesting to see how the questions I'm asking have gained depth because I have gained confidence. This time around, I am more interested in creating new ways to think, new ways of doing things, breaking the rules and the comfort zone. It's going to be a fantastic year.

AGA

The Weekly Good: Words Are The Best Lovers

Last March I ended things with my long time boyfriend. He was from Argentina, and had seduced me with Mercedes Sosa songs and the way his piano hands moved although he did not play; how he peeled an apple, in one swift ribbon; and the poems he recited in Spanish so quickly I did not know what they meant but I did not care.

Still, despite the fact it was over with him almost a year ago, I don't write about it.

But the last few months have been so crystal clear in purpose, so unrelentingly focused on words, that I have myself questioning the idea of repeating that kind of love, the one with the Argentinian, and why he was in my life at all. The idea of a partner. Or even, the idea of a husband.

I have noticed a pattern with men in my life. Now some might say this is because of who I am or who I have chosen, but I think how we meet another is much simpler, like of a series of random events that cause a collision or a field of safflower to bloom early.

But back to the pattern. The truth is, I'm extremely capable, strong, and passionate. And I'm all these things on my own, without anyone to focus my attentions on. Men who have shown up in my life are strange creatures who seem to like this enthusiasm, energy and giftedness for resilience. At the same time, they have all seemed to need nurturing and a great deal of attention, even if on the outside they appeared to be someone different--perhaps they looked capable and strong, too--but that hasn't meant that they were.

I have never minded the giving of those things: the nurturing, the attention. I have equally loved the whole nesting experience with another.

Until last March.

It occurred to me, last March, that if I wasn't so busy nurturing and giving and cooking and listening and being attentive, I'd have more time to write.

This thought came as shock, electric. It was a revolutionary thought, secret. I kept it on the inside but I was sure he could see it on my face, as I looked at him and considered what it would be like if I loved him but he was absent. Could I not love him just as much, whether he was there or not? What would the kitchen feel like, to move around in, without walking around him? Maybe that space would feel hot or cool, or maybe I would feel nothing.

He moved from the kitchen and I went and stood where he had been standing. The air in that spot was the same temperature as the air around it. I allowed myself to touch the counter he has been touching: the crumbs were the same crumbs. And under my feet, the linoleum was rippled and scarred, as it was all around me.

He was eating at the dining table and I looked at him, and he reminded me of other men I had known and cooked for and done dishes for and packed lunches for and reminded and texted and hugged and kissed. They had all eaten the way he ate, with the salt and pepper shakers on the table, the napkin already forgotten and drifting to the ground, the hands expert at cutting steak, which I had never mastered. In fact, watching him, I realized the only time in my life I ate meat at all was when I was with a partner, as they all seemed to consume large pieces of animals often and it was difficult to cook two dinners.

I realized that I did not want to cook two dinners anymore. Nor did I wish to pick up that paper napkin on the floor, or slice through a brown and red thigh of a cow.

I sat at the table and watched him chew, the knife in his hand part of a set I'd brought back for him from France, each knife decorated with a bee on the handle, with blades made just for beef. He had beautiful hands: slight, fluttering like birds. He cut a bit of meat and then slid it on his fork, carefully, slowly, balancing.

"It's over," I said, matching the cadence of my words with his fork in measured time, as it went up into his mouth and out again. I said more words, but I have forgotten what they were now.

He kept cutting and eating. He stared at the roses he had bought me, which were not even in a vase yet, but leaning in the water pitcher, haphazard, already wilting from the kitchen heat.

His face said he did not take me seriously.

"When will you have this writing thing out of your system? " He leaned forward, his hand waving his knife in little swooping circles as he spoke. For emphasis.

And just like that, snap! It was broken.

"Never." I looked at him evenly, knowing that tonight I would not clear his plate, nor wash the dishes, nor pack his lunch in the morning. I would leave that napkin on the floor for days until he picked it up himself. I would throw out those French knives decorated with bees, because I don't eat meat. I would not have roses on my dining table. I would have a bowl of fruits: pomegranates, kiwis, and nectarines: all the exotic fruits he had eaten before I could get to them. I would write every single day, from now on, from the moment I got home from work until I feel asleep. I would dream in words, uninterrupted.

At some point, much later, he left. I nodded a goodbye. The tears had already passed. I was at my desk, writing. Which is where I have been ever since.

Words are the best lovers.

Take up one thing. Make that thing your life. Dream of it. Think of it. Live it. Let the brain, the body, the muscles, the tissues, every part of your body be given over to that thing. And just leave every other thing alone. This is the way to fulfillment and the way great spiritual giants are produced.
— Swami Vivekananda

Yes, please leave a comment. Nice comments always encouraged. AGA

The Weekly Good/Retreat: Turns Out, I Am a Nun Afterall

I was on a retreat last week.

Medieval nun writing/Creative Commons  

Medieval nun writing/Creative Commons
 

It was strange, that I had looked so forward to going--for weeks and weeks--but once the deadline came around and I had to leave my life and go somewhere away from it, things happened to prevent from me leaving.

Some of these things were pleasant, such as jobs given at the last minute by an editor, but other things were of my own doing.

When I finally dragged myself to the car with my suitcase and pile of notebooks for writing, it was a day late, and I'd missed the first session of writing time.

Truthfully, I wasn't sorry: I think part of me realized I needed space, not group activities.

I spent the almost four hour drive while stuck in traffic thinking about all the things I needed to accomplish while at the retreat: my list was pages long.

Once I arrived, I was taken to my tiny, closet shaped room with its twin bed and spare furnishings, all I wanted was to get under the covers and eat chocolate bars and day dream. I wanted unplanned time, desperately.

I was also reminded of the retreats I'd been on when I was younger, when I was searching for spiritual satisfaction: how many convents and monasteries I had visited! How many little rooms I had sat in just like that one, waiting and wishing for some grand epiphany that did not arrive. I liked the unstructured times during those spiritual retreats, too: just thinking--or not--for hours.

And that is precisely what I did, most of the time, on the retreat last weekend. Sometimes I wrote and conversed and planned, but most of the time I did absolutely nothing.

Curiously, on the first night, I wandered down to the basement of the retreat center, where there were all kinds of art supplies and lots of women fluttering and chatting and collaging and papermaking. I sat at a big collage making table, assembling a collage I had no intention of keeping: I just cut out the shapes and glued them on to be doing something. I listened to everyone talking about their special projects they were making and wondered at my lack of sentimentality: ever since I decided to simplify my life, I'd been less attracted to art-making.

The collage making went on until it was very late at night and the basement rooms were freezing cold; yet, I stayed on because there was a woman there who I was exchanging life stories with. When I told her about my life long desire to be a nun, and how it had taken me all over the world and into darkness when I decided I could not be one after all, she said the most curious thing:

"But you have become a nun, of sorts." As she said this, I was both surprised and also instantly pleased. How strange it was that someone I just met knew this about me, when I did not know it about myself.

She elaborated, telling me about how my focus on writing and words to exclusion of some other things made me a bit nun-like. Or perhaps very nun-like. And what she said rang true.

We talked about a lot of things that night. I told her how no one told me about how my life would change when I decided to write more than a year ago--and not just write, but be devoted to it. No one sat me down and said, you will need to choose some things over others. In fact, it all happened so quickly, almost as if I fell down accidentally. There has been no time to consider what I lost or what I gained; indeed, I have scarcely thought about any of it at all. but sometimes I have fleetingly glanced at something I miss, because putting writing first has been such a huge commitment that I said goodbye often. Sometimes it has been a goodbye to a love affair that had no room for writing in it; other times to just-blooming friendships, which I did not have time for; and material possessions and sentimentality also have gone away too.

At the end of the four days, I felt several things: a bit fat from all the chocolate bars and the hearty food, well rested and of clear mind, and ready to deal with 2015. But most of all, I felt very comfortable with the decisions I've been making lately, to choose to be succinctly focused on words and stories. I left, feeling settled and at home with myself.

The weekly good: turns out, I'm a nun after all..of sorts. I like that. I like it a great deal. This is how my 2015 begins: unfettered, clear, purposeful, and at peace with my spiritual path of words.

[The Weekly Good is a journal-style blog entry about whatever I'm finding to be a lesson or a very good thing in my life. Sometimes I have to look for it, and others, it's easily to find. AGA]

The Weekly Good/ Tim Cahill

The Weekly Good today is a person. Tim Cahill. He wrote a book which changed my life.

Some years ago, when I began a lengthy journey around the world, I found myself in the Panama jungle, living in a tiny community of Ngabe people. I can't say precisely why I ended up there, except that someone who lived there had asked me to visit. But I can say why the visit turned into a very long stay: it was because of a book.

It wasn't just any book, it was Tim Cahill's book, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh. It was the first travel book I ever read. Before discovering his book, I hadn't even known about travel literature as a genre of writing.

I didn't bring it with me to that remote mountaintop village--it was given to me by the Ngabe people who lived there. There was a small library, full of damp and molding books donated by Christian missionaries and volunteer workers, and resting among them was Cahill's book, left behind by a Peace Corp worker.

The people in the village loved his book. They could not read it, since they did not know English, but they revered the jaguar and held a special place for any person who survived a jaguar attack. They presented his book to me as though it was a holy thing.

And it was.

I spent many afternoons outside the village tuberculosis clinic, reading it to a small crowd of patients and their children, who asked questions about what he was doing in each part of the book. It wasn't me explaining and retelling his stories--it was him. He was a real person, alive, sitting with us on a tree stump, hands moving as he told his tales.

~

I was afraid in the jungle. I had never been so outside of what was familiar: everything I knew and had learned was wrong among the Ngabe. I was not an expert at anything. I had nothing to offer. I was exhausted by trying to adapt, and I often wanted to leave those first few weeks.

But Cahill's book changed that. I saw a person doing things he was afraid to do. I saw him embracing challenges. And I realized I could choose that, too. I could be fearless, or at least walk along side the fear.

His book became my constant companion. I memorized long passages from it. I could hear his voice speaking the words, telling me to pushing myself harder. Stop fighting. Be more open. Learn.

And so I stayed. I stayed in that jungle for many months, until I forgot who I had I had been when I arrived.

~

About a year ago, I met Cahill in person. His voice was exactly like I had imagined it would be. Since that time, he has been a constant mentor, guide and friend. But really, he became that mentor in the jungle. His book changed my life. His stories changed my path. Because of his words I started a journey that I haven't stopped: living a life without fear. And he continues to inspire me to write well and deeply, to overcome, to refine my voice.

I am so blessed and so extraordinarily happy with life tonight.

AGA

The Weekly Good/ Goodbye

If you are brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a huge hello.
— Paulo Coelho

The weekly good today is saying goodbye.

Christmas Eve is always a charged time for me. It is, as some say, complicated.

I decided to end my relationship with my family some years ago, and it really took quite awhile for me to get used to the lack of familial structure during holidays. Christmas Eve, in particular, was especially painful. What does one do, when there is there is no obligatory dinner to attend, no stockings to hang, no mandatory gifts to buy, no photos to take?

In past years, I filled this void easily: I volunteered at homeless shelters, packed up boxes for the food bank, baked dozens of tins of Christmas cookies, attended a lengthy Latin mass.

But this year, I'm doing something different. I have embraced some of those same traditions, but with an added twist. I've come to see that Christmas is not gifts, nor trees, nor religious services, nor being with anyone in particular.

It is, instead, an opportunity for reflection and self examination, as well intensely examining the people we choose to have in our lives. I'm using this Christmas Eve to think about connection and saying goodbye in a positive healthy way to experiences and people that don't shine. Sometimes relationships shine for a little while and then when you stop polishing them, they get dull again. It is a process of discernment to determine which connections to polish and which ones are not worth the effort.

What relationships have I chosen for this life, and are they of value? How are these relationships creating peace? Not world peace, but the peace of the self.

I know what you are thinking: a relationship that creates peace? It doesn't sound like the connections we are used to making. But peace is not possible between two people when there is a great deal of space between them. Not physical space, but the space of understanding. You can't force understanding: people are in their own worlds, and either they come into it by some immeasurable kismet, or not at all. Sometimes it feels like we are walking around blind, blessed with deep friendships and familial connection only when we accidentally bump into each other.

Oftentimes, I have felt pressured to keep people in my life that did not earn their place in it. Family, for example. One's family can be even terribly kind and warm and loving--but if they deny your truth, then suddenly that kindness, that warmth, that love, it looks different. At least it does to me.

And even friends: sometimes I have kept people near out of habit, as I have known them for years. Other times, I have allowed people in that perhaps I should not have, based on what I thought I saw, or perhaps hoped I did. But life changes. And it is okay that it does. It would be strange if it didn't.

Each time I question a relationship in my life, I have to question myself, too. There is the question of what did I contribute or not, to create something that did not function. Always there is a lesson.

But these goodbyes have to be made, to make room for renewal. This is the time to make decisions which will carry over into the new year. It's not a sad thing, letting people go. I allow myself to miss them, to linger a bit. As Paulo Coelho says, it takes a huge effort to free yourself from memory. There is remembering, and then there is reflecting in what was, but no longer is, without waiting. Just moving through it.

I've come to love goodbye.

Goodbye means something new. Goodbye is a good thing. It doesn't mean you don't wish someone well. It only means you are choosing for them not to be an influencer in your present.

If you are one of those people who is like me on Christmas, wondering how to define a holiday for yourself, when all the people you're supposed to be with aren't present because they don't fit with who you are: celebrate it. You are allowed to write to write your own life story, and you are allowed to choose all the characters in it. It's a positive place to be standing tonight, a night whose story is about what is new and coming forth.

The peace of the self is as important as world peace. In fact, I don't think world peace is possible if we are not at peace with ourselves.

 

Wishing you a blessed Christmas.

AGA

The Weekly Good/ Two Suitcases

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
— Hans Hoffman
Image: Creative Commons  

Image: Creative Commons
 

The daily good today is not one thing, but two: two suitcases.

I bought two suitcases today: they are black and big and have a hard shell, and they sit in middle of my bedroom, waiting.

I'm not going anywhere yet. I bought them to fill. I bought them to limit myself, limit my possessions.

I've been working on simplicity for some time: I have gotten rid most of my clothes and books and sentimental objects. But I knew I needed to have more self discipline, especially where I live. In the United States, we are bombarded with information that does its best to convince us that we need more. More of everything. Despite my hard earned self discipline, I often tempted by things of beauty, color, and form..as well as books, paper, and little things.

I felt having the suitcases and limiting what I owned to what could fit inside them would be an exercise that was both poignantly practical and deeply spiritual. I suppose , too, the idea of the suitcases is symbolic. Letting go and filling are recurrent themes in my life.

As I stood in the shop staring at all the varieties to choose from, I felt a little overwhelmed. There were so many kinds: I'd thought it would be a simple decision. But it turned out that choosing the suitcases to store your life in is actually quite difficult. There are the distractions of texture, of color, feel. But the biggest distract is the finality of such a choice.

I choose two, and bought them, and took them home. I lugged them up the stairs and stood looking at them, kind of astonished that the space they took up would represent my material existence on this planet. I will admit that I cried a little, for it is a letting go of the highest order to attend to such a task.

On the other hand, there is a methodical joy that comes with choosing carefully. I don't think there is anything quite like it. It's always interesting when I come to this choice (for I have simplified to this extent a few times in my life) that people try to reassure me, telling me I can store things with a friend, for example. But we are not here long enough to really need to store things with anyone. We have the ability to be freed of things, and it is good for us to choose total freedom.

It is good for me, anyway.

The last time I made this choice I was preparing for journey around the world. Oh, the agony of giving my things that I had loved away! It was swift and cutting, and my attachments were many. I did actually store a few boxes with a friend, and when I returned some years later, I was kind of appalled at the material objects I had thought had value, because they had none to me after my journey. I learned from that. I learned that sentiment is not terribly useful, as things don't represent memory: stories do.

I've been cutting loose more than material things these days. I'm cutting loose people, ideas, fears. Some days it feels like I am a snake, constantly shedding one skin for another new one, over and over and over. This can be both exhausting and rejuvenating. But I know that these peeled layers are not useful and do not fit with who I am, and even if I want them to belong, they don't. Life is short and unknown, and I've found that is important to understand timing. There is not time to make wishful mistakes, there is only time to choose as wisely as I can. Sometimes this hurts, but it then again, it feels good at the same time. Letting go is an act of being in the moment and being present, rather than reacting to the past, which is what attachment is based on.

During this life of mine, I feel quite directed and purposeful. My inner life, inner world, is quite complicated. I have lengthy dialogues and conversations with myself and my past selves which need attending; I have writing set out for the coming year, and very little time to think about other things. This is why simplicity works for me: it gives me a clearing, a space in my head to make room for writing.

This Christmas week I have a few days off, and I've decided not to write during that time, but instead to fill those two suitcases and get rid of the things I don't need. It is a physical act, but it is also a mental one too. It is creating a clearing and a space that is in alignment with my goal for 2015: to make words and the act of writing holy.

Holy. Meaning sacred, consecrated, divine.

There is not enough space in these suitcases or in my world for things or thoughts or people which distract from that purpose, which is a new way of looking at writing: it is not solely a craft, it is a calling. I think choosing the word holy puts everything in a different light, and I find, already, that I am beginning to see the temporal quality of what is around me.

And now, I'm going to go pack for the rest of my life. I am looking forward to choosing what I love, what I need, and the ease of choice after the suitcases are full.

AGA

The Weekly Good/ Trust

I get by with a little help from my friends.
— John Lennon
Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2104/ Graffiti on wall on the inner city of Fez, Morocco    

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2104/ Graffiti on wall on the inner city of Fez, Morocco  
 

The good today is trust.

Being a grown up is difficult. Even at forty six, I cannot quite get over how different it is than when I was eight years old. Eight does not seem that long ago, eight feels touchable, close. Eight is the age I had a friend called "K" and she and I used to lie on the grass after it rained, and stare hard at the sky, looking for UFO's, which we had read came after a storm. Or we would imagine we did not have the lives we did, which were strained and a bit rough at times: we never spoke of these things, but we knew. We would listen to Cat Stevens on her brother's tape deck and pretend to live the lives of others: Amy Carter, Princess Lea, the daughter from The Planet of the Apes. Our conversations were possibilities. I could say anything to her, and she could say anything to me. Two sides of the same.

She was the most wonderful friend, and yet I cannot recall her name.

But when I think about friendship and what defines it, I think of her. She was always present, a listener, a jokester, an advice-giver. She knew things I did not, and somehow my world at eight was easier with her living inside of it.

Real friendships like the one with "K" were harder to come by as life moved forward. Young adulthood was strange and uneven, and I lacked the focus to maintain friendships for very long. People came, and they went, and it did not seem to make a big difference either way, life seemed long and effortless. Then middle age came rather abruptly with marriage, divorce, religious revelation and cancer in quick succession, and the main friend I had made in my life died rather sadly and at her own hand. Before she died, just days before, we met for lunch at our favorite spot.

"I have something to tell you.' she said. "You are real."

I did not feel real when she died two days later. I did not feel real when the phone rang and I held it as they told me and I knew when her name was said, one word, "Grace', that she was gone. Somehow I just knew. I did not feel real when I discovered, alongside most other people in her life, that she lived a double life, caught up in a series of untruths so enormous they swallowed her up, and she left.  I did not know she was not real, and this cast me into a pit of doubt about not only who she was, but who I was.

For some years after that, I didn't pursue friendships, for I felt responsible for her death. If only I had known. If only I had paid attention more to the details. But eventually I realized that what someone wants to be unknown and hidden will remain that way until they are ready to show it. I realized her death was not my fault. I realized I could try to find a new friend.

Then I realized it was not that I blamed myself, but that I did not trust people anymore. Grace had been my best friend, but at the same time, she was someone I did not know. I was very cautious around people, and achingly slow to invite them in.

It took a long time. Years. There were failures, quite a few: people who I did not have enough in common with, or who lived far away, or were awful to travel with. There were successes, many, slowly budding interactions. It was slow and lonely for years.. Maybe too, I wasn't ready for the kinds of friendships that would be laid out for me. Perhaps I was preparing.

Recently, I was in need of guidance that only a group of good friends can give.. Not the kind that is brief or uneasy, but that instantly opens windows and lets the fresh air in. When this need arises, that is how you can tell who is a friend and who is real. The litmus test of friendship is always crisis, and crisis is the great sifter of people in a general way as well. Integrity to the left, noncommittal to the right.

These kinds of good, solid, friendships are hard to find. Yet I finally have them, and not just one, but many. Some of them are people I have only met this year, and others are people who I have known for a long time. Some I met online (yes, sometimes that works) and some I met in the jungle or washing laundry in buckets on a rooftop of an orphanage in India.

It took me a long time to make these kinds of friends, for I remembered Grace. How she wasn't real, but in-between places, caught. Only one way out. I was afraid that it would happen again, and so my demands for what makes a close friend were and remain high. So high very few have  reached the bar.

And these people, they are my fire circle. They surround me, protect me, warm me, keep me, and love me. Yet they are spread around the globe, so far apart. I visualize sometimes that we will all be in the same room together. How noisy that room will be!

I am not an easy person to be friends with. I am intensely focused on my writing, have lofty standards and values, and expect the best from the people around me. I stay up too late at night worrying and wondering and need a friend to open the door of my cage every once in awhile. I don't lose my temper easily but I lose my way and get distracted by violence and difficulty in the world, and I often need a friend to brighten things a little. I get hurt and am triggered easily because of my childhood, and so must occasionally ask friends to nurture as a mother rather than a sister, father rather than a brother. I am on my own, family free by necessity, and my friends have taken their place. It is a hefty balance.

Why do my friends do so much for me? I am not sure. I am just grateful that I have arrived at place and moment where friendship is easy, and my circle is wide and full of powerful, gracious people with lives overflowing. I can't believe they let me inside those lives sometimes.

I want to thank them, especially after they have helped me recently to listen and not lose my focus with my writing, which is easy for me to do. Without them I would not have these pages of my book written that sit on my desk, or those essays finally done. Without them I would have no future plans, for they don't let me rest in dreamland, they make me speak my words aloud so they are alive and bouncing. Without them, my life would not be raw, in the moment, right now, real.

It is good to be surrounded by the sweet love of friends. I hope the circle keeps growing.

AGA

The Weekly Good/ Writing is Real

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.
— Paulo Coelho
Photo credit: amygigialexander/Art by Yves Saint Laurent, "Love" collection, Morocco  

Photo credit: amygigialexander/Art by Yves Saint Laurent, "Love" collection, Morocco
 

The weekly good is that writing is a place to be real, even when the rest of the world isn't.

It's strange to me that sometimes I go through my whole day, tied, bound, fettered to situations and people that I cannot escape. What is stranger is that I have no place that is as warm and welcoming to my grief, pain, indecision, truth..than my writing.

I do try to talk to people, but as a good friend of mine says to me often, "People are messy."

Words are never messy. They are loyal and steadfast. Yes, sometimes they are lazy and do not line up the way I want them to, but they always work hard trying. Words are good places for complex feelings and loneliness, private joys and gladness.

People, not so much. There is trust, but only to a select few, the ones who understand and who see the layers. Not everyone has that skill, to see layers.

Sometimes I try to share my real self with people, long since gone. I talk to Auden and Austen, Tolsoy and Wright. They are all very good listeners, silent. Other times I try to talk to real people, living. It does not always go so well.

And that is what draws me into storytelling and keeps me there. It is real in a story, and I can be real inside of it.

Sometimes I suffer from terrible headaches, because I forget this truism. Then it occurs to me to put my feelings into a story, and suddenly, I can handle being in the world. Naked.

 

AGA
 

The Weekly Good/ Rest

Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, I am reborn.
— Mahatma Gandhi

The daily good today is rest.

Some people might think that it is odd that I would write about rest, because I try to do a lot different things and am a busy person. But rest means different things for different people: for some of us, it means rest from light and noise and being awake; for others it could be being alone and listening to only oneself; and for a few people I know, rest is not quiet, but active motion without introspection.

For me, rest can be many different things: time with (or away from) words, time with sleep-after a good night's rest, I am reborn, as Gandhi says. But I also feel the same exact way after finishing a good piece of writing. Not writing that is "fluff", as one of my dear writerly friends calls it. No. I mean writing that holds you in one place until you are done with it or, most of the time, when it is finished with you. This is the best of kind of rest to me.

Each time I write something weighty and good, it releases me from the heaviness that comes with having carried it around. It's another kind of sleep, the sleep of the writerly mind caught mid-motion, stepping between one story and the next. That is a kind of rest, too.

And after that rest, there is the waking up, which looks and feels like this:
 

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander2014/Stained glass window in small village church in France  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander2014/Stained glass window in small village church in France
 

Writing is a holy act, and its sacrament is the finished story. But the spaces in-between the stories, that is needed too.

AGA

The Weekly Good/ The Activist Writer

When Rimbaud became a slave trader, he stopped writing poetry. Poetry and slave trading cannot be bedfellows.”
— Chinua Achebe, from his 1994 interview in the Paris Review
Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ Ngabe girl with dove, Comarca Bugle, Panama  

Photo credit: ©amygigialexander 2014/ Ngabe girl with dove, Comarca Bugle, Panama
 

The weekly good today is about shining a light in a dark world: the melding of activism and writing into one.

Lately, I've felt loss. So much hate, snarkiness, and cynicism in the world I'm watching. Worst of all, that killer of souls, apathy. I've been searching for hefty examples of leadership, words, and encouragement from the wealth of the literary world over the last few weeks. Part of me has wondered what I, as a writer, can do to make the world better.

Sometimes I think I am making it better: telling stories about places in way that evokes what is beautiful even when it is painful; going places and showing the world, blown wide open; and using my own life and struggles to hopefully inspire others to move beyond where they are and think of themselves as more fluid than stuck.

But that's not enough, and I've been wondering why. The world seems to be going to dark places, and lighting it up takes more and more effort.

And yet, there is this light, isn't there? It's not just an empty wish for things to be brighter: it's a real and lasting light dancing in and out of shadows that we are trying to capture.

Chinua Achebe, in the quote above,  is referring to activism and its relationship to the writer. He's not talking about hope or wishy washy sentiments: he's saying that it's very clear to him that writing and shining the light in the dark places are requirements of being a writer. That it's important to speak aloud, to be seen, to be a strong beacon. That one cannot exist without the other for the literary. Narcissism is writing left on its own, stranded and admiring its reflection, but paired with some form of activism, the whole world shows up.

And I find this stunningly hopeful.

Writing is important work. It is not lofty, but humble, earthy, on the ground. One must lie on the floor and listen to the rumblings. One must look all directions in one's life. One must go deeper than just filling a page with words. Writing has the power to help other people see things differently, without telling them how, but showing them.

To me, being an activist in my writing life means to continue doing what I'm doing now, but not to get too comfortable, to keep pushing out at the edges, little by little. For others, pairing activism with writing will look different, and could translate into a multitude of things.  There are so many ways a writer could bring it into their work: it could be a moment that is personal and shared; or a gentle leading of the reader a new direction; or creating content with new integrity; or even letting go of smoothness and launching into the uneven territory of anger. This kind of pairing can fit into any kind of writing:  the important thing is that the writer is illuminating something. It doesn't have to be devastating, or detailed, but it has to say:

Here is my voice, let me show you something you missed: here is a glimmer of integrity, here are words I am not paid to say,  here is truth and beauty, here is my humanity, here is an injustice made right by my voice, here I am in the open.

Whether it is a glimpse or the writer is able to maintain being in the open for longer periods, both are examples of activism and writing coming together. And both are necessary, because right now, more than ever, we need writers to take up the torch, and light up the world with words.

AGA
 

The Weekly Good/ Write It All In

Don’t bend; don’t water down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.
— Franz Kafka

One of my favorite photos I've taken this year was this one, at the gateway to the ocean, on the edge of Tangiers. It's an extraordinary photo, because it shows a moment: a man walking, yet captured, still-life. But it's also so blue, so intense, so total. There is nothing between the viewer and the blue. One feels one is seeing everything. And to me, this is how writing can be: it can show everything, either by telling it, or by my subtly inserting it into the subjects and stories I write. Writing is a place with no space in between--or if there is space, it should be a satisfying one, which is hard to do when you leave things out. My solution has been to mix things up.
 

It was last January that I started this website, and I have to say that from the start I found the idea of a website pretty terrifying--not so much because of what I would write here, but more so what everyone told me NOT to write.

As someone who is a travel writer, I was advised to stick to travel and place. Not to sway too far from the status quo. It was suggested I not talk about difficult subjects: not just by other writers, but pressures also came from the public and even my own relations.

But one thing I knew from the start was that I had spent years suppressing my stories, and because I was told not to tell them, I took on the shame and responsibility for them. I knew that when I created a website, it would have to include the dark things, the hard truths, the realness.

There are people who write well and manage to avoid these things, but to me the best writers are the ones who dive deep. When I read work by someone who is talking story but not moving in and out of the water of their own history, I feel a lack. It is not empty, but it is missing something. I don't really know what to say when I read that work, because it's obvious that they avoiding talking about the very thing which led them to that story in the first place. It makes everything watered down, as Kafka says above, when we are not authentic.

So it's been almost a year here, writing a mix of travel and personal memoir, and I think it's working. I've talked about cancer. I've talked about rape. I've talked about incest. But I've also marched through Paris, joined a wake in Honduras, taught at a Muslim girls' school in Bihar.

Recently I was talking to a travel writer, who had a sort of content-and-destination website, but who also wanted to write about her personal life. It was frustrating for her to find a happy medium, and she'd decided to create two websites, one for each of her selves. I get that on a professional level, but I also get that our histories empower us to write about what attracts us, whether it's travel, entertainment, dogs, or politics. Figuring out a way to bring a little (or a lot) of one's history into one's writing life without dividing it can be very rewarding. Not to mention, it shows that you can move about in the world freely, honestly, and without reservations. It makes you relatable, responsible, and personal.

Today, the good is the importance of mixing it up. If you only write destination pieces, you will end up hungering for richer, more intensive words and stories. And if you only write work about your agonies, frustrations, and self growth you will sometimes wish you could write about your summer vacation which was perfectly wonderful.

Life is interwoven. Writing should be, too.

I'm glad I ignored the advice I was given about what to write and share publically: it has helped me understand my readers and gain a wider audience, not to mention dismiss shaming people entirely from my life. I'm planning more big stories for 2015, and in part this is because I have this website, this home, this creation to share them on. It's a great comfort to have a place where I can mix it all up. A place where I can show the deep intense blue of the Moroccan sea, in words.

Thanks for reading. Gratitude.

AGA
 

The Weekly Good/ Becoming A Walker

 I only went out for a walk and finally conceded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I concluded, was really going in.

— John Muir

Today is the first day that I begin to train in earnest for a seriously lengthy and difficult walk along the East Coast trail in Newfoundland next summer. After that walk, I have two others planned, including one on the le Puy route in France  and another in Asia.

What's odd about it is that I'm not a walker, not naturally. I'm not driven to walk long distances or get wrapped up in furiously infused periods of physical fitness. In fact, I love pastries and banana ice cream and sitting down.

But about eight years ago, I started walking seriously. I became a hardcore, devoted walker, not because I wanted to be in great shape but  because I wanted to see a country and landscape properly: on the ground. Walking gives a perspective of place like no other.


 

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The Weekly Good/ Diversity

I'll be honest. The daily good was hard to find today. A crime was committed in my country, a boy was killed. He was killed for being a person of color. A decision was made about the man who killed him, and result of that is that that man walked away. That is what happened. It is not the first time this has happened in my country: it has happened over and over, an ugly series of welts across the American landscape.

I've been thinking all day what the good could possibly be today, and finally, tonight, there was a clearing in my head, and the good showed itself. You'll find the daily good just below the beautiful art featuring Maya Angelou's quote, which is by a talented artist I discovered online awhile ago: Nate Williams.

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