Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto: Rest in Peace

It’s dusk, the snow is about to start any moment, and I’m driving down Iowa Street, one of the main drags in my town, on our way to Target to buy something for dinner and a DVD of the Simpson movie. It’s been a good day, considering the holidays’ pressure that still lingers behind me, my husband sick at home across town, and the tricky weather ahead. At least, it seemed like a good day until NPR began telling us of a woman who runs a website to match up people with their missing gloves.

“Why in the world are they reporting on this when Benazir Bhutto was just killed?” my oldest son, Daniel, yells out.

I almost stop short. For years, I’ve followed her story, mesmerized by her daring, intelligence, and leadership. The first woman to serve as prime minister of a Muslim country, Bhutto, and 20 others – as most of you know by now – were killed at a political rally by an assassin who blew himself up afterwards. Born into a wealthy family, and educated at Harvard, and Oxford, she lost her father and two of her brothers to political violence. She also lived in exile in between serving two terms as prime minister, dodging death threats and denouncements of her political party, being falsely charged with corruption, and continuing to defy those who would silence her.

Returning to Pakistan after 8 years of exile, she was met with a bomb blast that just missed her. In recent weeks, she’s been under house arrest and even had her house barb-wired by the police to keep her from speaking at a rally against Gen. Musharraf’s emergency rule imposition. That didn’t stop her from launching her election campaign 27 days ago

“We can expect 3-5 inches of fresh snow tonight, and a 50-50 chance of more snow tomorrow,” the news announcer says with just enough cheer. I aim the car toward the Target parking lot, feeling shaken by how, when she stuck her neck out for her beliefs, someone slit it. I forget to look for a parking space for a few moments.

There are news stories of tragedies far from here all the time. Maybe because I tend to hear most of my news on the radio instead of having repeated images imprinted into my memory, I often find it easy to just feel momentarily sad, and then get occupied with other things. But there are some stories, like this one, that break through the numbness and resistance born of being safely here, where I can wander store aisles without fearing for my life or buy my kids sweat shirts without fearing for theirs. Minutes after heading the top-of-the-hour news, headlined with the sounds of Pakistan men weeping, I’m pushing a cart through Target, looking for noodles.

Yet my mind is on Bhutto, who I believed would win election and start the slow process of releasing the fascist steam from Pakistani politics. Maybe, and quite obviously, this was a naïve belief. At this moment, many time zones from where we’re expecting freezing drizzle before the snow, thousands of people face far more than my dashed hopes. I circle through the bread aisle twice without remembering what I’m here for, and try to wrap my mind around the grief and loss, the great gulf of fear just split wider, the unbearable pain for so many in Pakistan. I wish for comfort and peace in a country that hasn’t seen much of either in so long and now faces a future where both will be as rare as a brave woman who walked right into the fire, refusing to be silenced or hidden.

I push my cart toward the register and find no line to wait in, only a simple prayer: Benazir Bhutto, rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Spirit Trips: Woody

We’ve all taken those kinds of trips that aren’t anywhere in the vicinity of relaxing poolside under swaying palms, or long meetings in elevator-filled hotels where the donuts are never fresh. Yet there’s another kind of trip, one usually sudden regardless of what’s in the bank account or already on the credit card, guided by a simple yearning to be with someone we love to say hello, goodbye, or I’m here for you with our presence. These trips glow with their own energy and make their own luck, and like these trips, the person we were going to see in Colorado – our cousin Woody – also glows with life, humor and heart.

Having just driven with my husband, sister-in-law and youngest son about 1,400 miles give or take a bathroom break, in 3.5 days, I realize I’ve experienced such a trip. Why else dodge an ice storm on one end and snow storm on another while balancing the slowly-dying embers of a virus to drive relentlessly onward so engrossed in the autobiography of Steve Martin on tape that we run out of gas in Western Kansas? Yet because it was a spirit trip, we found ourselves on roads hours after they were cleared, and meeting an Oklahoma angel who just happened to travel with a canister of gas when we needed it.

Besides being related to us, Woody, whose real name is Forrest, is a forest ranger in Fort Collins, CO. with decades of service, daring and making others bend with laughter. A man so full of life, and wildly-entertaining verbal gymnastics, it was little surprise to find him sitting in his office in a huge red and gold stuffed crown (of the “It’s not butter, it’s Parkay” variety), telling everyone, “This is because I’m a royal pain in the ass.”

The crown as well as our trip was motivated by Woody’s latest turns on the trail of living with lung cancer that has now set out for the hinterlands of other organs in his body. His cancer, an atypical carcinoid, is the rarest of the rare, not unlike Woody himself (who is not, in any way, cancerous but certainly rare). His emails to his many friends and family address us as “noidistas” and report such headlines as, “Once again I look like a poorly maintained cue ball,” and “We are now launched into the next orbital level of the As-The-World-Turns inner space trip.” We’ve also heard of Captain Atypical, how “mets” aren’t just a baseball team in New York, and what it means to undergo bouts of chaos theory.

Just regrowing his hair after a particularly nasty chaos-theory-through-chemo
regiment that almost put Woody beyond the chaos of our everyday lives, not to mention his own life, he was thrilled to see us. Our short time together was punctuated by long stories of energy politics, camping trips gone awry, mind-blowing pesto pizza, and especially the company of Woody and his wife Janet’s four schipperkees.

The dogs – Rainbo, Teddy, Frostbite, and the ever-mysterious Guy Noir – look like a mix between refrigerator magnet black dogs and miniature Tasmanian devils. They probably have the intelligence of dolphins on their good days, and the speed of low-to-the-ground cougars as they race (“here comes the Indy 500”) through the house, pausing to do tricks (like patty-cake), sit on our laps (at least one of them), or pace-race around the kitchen table with a toy in their mouths. My kids tend to think of the dogs, who they’ve visited for years, as relatives. “Cousins?” I asked my son. “Not really,” he said, “more like second cousins.”

These dogs, Woody’s wacky and enduring ways of bringing all of us more light and laughter, his wife’s wondrous caregiving (Woody once wrote of her that she was due for a second halo upgrade), and the parade of hats that keep coming, are carrying him through. Like most cancers, and especially unusual and later-stage cancers, the time ahead is mostly unpredictable. And so are spirit trips: journeys you don’t plan to take, but in the taking, you find your spirit has opened just enough more to perceive the life that’s always been here.

While Woody might be rarity in the cancer world, he’s old hat at spirit trips: He’s the one who managed to show up – seemingly out of nowhere – to surprise us at weddings, funerals, family reunions even if it meant long and wildly-spun travels from remote forest stations near 14,000-foot mountains. He’s been making spirit trips his whole life, and with our little roadtrip, we got to accompany him on his for a few days.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Body Is As Body Does

Okay, so I struggle with what most women, and many men I know worry about, fuss over, beat themselves senseless because of and generally fall backwards into like a big vat of butter: My body looks wrong. I don’t think about this with each breath, but far more frequently that I wish I would. Then I worry about worrying too much, and why can’t I be happy as I am: healthy, strong, relatively happy and able to walk long distances on a single café au lait (with soy milk, and whipped cream on top).

I suppose my worry started in those pre-teen “oh-my-god-is-this-what-I-look-like?” moments when I caught a glimpse of myself in a locker room mirror, a mean girl’s comment my father’s bad jokes (“Hey you, don’t get fat until after you’re married. Boys don’t like fat girls”). From there, it’s the garden variety story that most of you dear readers know so well already involving making desserts out of toast, pineapple and anise seed; counting calories, points, grams and portions; writing eager manifestations and making collages out of slimmer women; and alternating between telling myself I love myself the size I am and then having an unflattering picture snap me back into the mildewed-halls of self-hatred.

What’s a girl to do? Like many of us, I’ve driven myself crazy over the reality that despite all the books and articles I’ve ingested on accepting and loving my body as I am, and despite so many journal entries, art projects and long discussions with friends about loving the body we’re with rather than the yearned-for one that looks good in horizontal stripes, I occasionally land on my (too large) butt back on square one. It’s not just the frustration of not moving ahead, but the boredom of thinking – once again – the same thoughts about my size and shape that occupied my mind when I was 15. It’s as if I have a permanent time-share in my brain where such thoughts occasionally vacation, making my life feel I’m anywhere but on vacation.

So I write today without enduring answers, suggestions or perceptions. But I am finding one simple thing to be true for me: Body is as body does. If I’m eating foods with great color, texture, freshness and vitality, I feel more alive. If I’m doing my Lamaze-type breathing to get through Pilates class, holding a Warrior pose in yoga class, lifting weights while trying not to fall off an exercise ball, or taking a long walk in the frost-filled landscape, I feel strong. If I’m soaking in the tub, complete with some kind of lavender or eucalyptus salts, the water as hot as I can stand, I feel calm and clean. There are other things I do that make me feel body-good (of the dark-night-under-the-blanket variety), but in the interest of not humiliating my children or parents if they read this, let’s just move on.

My realization is that living as if I love this body, my body, makes it way easier to pal around with my whole self.

The other thing I found is tangible evidence about how I never have looked as bad as I thought I did. I recently put together a photo timeline of myself from birth to the present, using about 50-60 shots of me lying in a crib, hugging a pony, waving from atop a giant cement turtle, cringing next to my prom date, posing as a nun beside a playboy bunny (Halloween), hiking in Kenya, standing over a cradle while nine month’s pregnant, holding a newborn in one hand and a dissertation in the other, and laughing with friends. Thanks to a glue stick and oversized journal (where I pasted the photos in wavy and curling lines), I found myself all over the place, giving whoever I am now this message: Hey, it’s all good! Or at least, it’s all okay.

Those photos I critiqued in microscopic detail when I was in 20s, 30s, 40s, even last year really are just one angle or another of someone living her life. Altogether, the photos don’t tell the story of a 19-year-old cursing her hips or a 45-year-old fretting over her chins; they just show one woman alive, surprisingly happy, experiencing one landscape of the heart or community or earth at the moment.

All along, it’s always been the same good song: Body is as body does.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Abiding Grace: A Tribute to the Late Grace Paley

Note: Grace Paley, one of the most amazing writers and activists of our time, died in late August. I wrote this after experiencing her warmth, honestly and humor at the Power of Words conference in 2005. If you love to read or write, I highly recommend any of her collections of short stories. If you're interested in the Power of Words conference (we're accepting workshops proposals now), please see

Liberation. That was the theme we chose for the third annual Power of Words conference held Aug. 6-9, 2005 at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and so when it came to finding a keynote speaker, who better than Grace Paley, the poet laureate of Vermont? A legendary writer and activist, who read often at Goddard, and lived just down the road, Grace was the shining star of writing, speaking and acting for justice with all passion and no pretense. I got her phone number from a friend of a friend of hers, dialed, and so began my odyssey of seeking Grace.

The conference, hosted by Transformative Language Arts concentration (part of Goddard’s Individualized MA Program), would bring together 80 writers, activists, storytellers, helping professionals, artists and educators from as far away as Southern California and London. Getting Grace, who lived only 20 minutes away, proved to be the trickier part.

The first time I called, I spoke with her husband, Bob (Robert Nichols): “Is Grace there?”


“Do you expect her back soon?”


“I wanted to ask her to be the keynote speaker for our conference.”

“She won’t do it,” he told me, but he also said I should call back on Sunday night.

I did. She wasn’t there.

I called again, and this time left a phone message.

A week later, I tried again. Bob answered, “Wait, she’s in the tub, I’ll hand her the phone.”

I ended up called back later that evening, and for the first time, spoke to her.

“I would like to go back to Goddard,” she told me. “It’s been a while. But I don’t know if I’m going to be on the Cape with my daughter and grandson that weekend. Call back in a month.”

I did. She still didn’t know. Call back in another month.

By this time, I had her number just about memorized. She still didn’t know.

About six weeks later, just as I needed to finalize the program, she told me that she knew she had to give me an answer, but what should it be? She said she felt terrible about putting me off. In the background, I heard Bob yelling, “Just say no, Grace! Say No.” Grace paused, then said, “You know what? I’m going to do it.”

From that point on, I called her about once a month just to visit a little, see how she was faring with her wild schedule that brought her all over the country and beyond to give readings, speak against the war or meet with students even though she was well over 80 and was dealing with a recurrence of breast cancer. At one point, I mentioned to her that I also was a breast cancer survivor, and although she was actively going through treatment and tests, she instead focused her voice on me, “Oh, Sweetheart,” she said, “what did they do to you?”

“I had chemo and a bunch of surgeries, but I’m okay now.”

“Oh honey, are you okay?”

“Really, it’s fine.”

“Don’t let those bastards hurt you,” she said, referring to the medical establishment.

That was about a month before the conference. A week before, she called me. “That conference, when is it?”

I went over the details with her, and she told me she had been feeling so much better lately, it would be good to come to the college again.

The night before she was to speak, I figured it might be good idea to make sure she had the details handy. So I called. Bob answered, told me Grace was in Boston, and wouldn’t be home until late.

“But she’s supposed to speak at our conference tomorrow. She’s the keynote speaker.”

“She’s old, she’s not feeling well. How can you think she’s going to be there?” he said.

“She said she would.”

“She didn’t say anything to me about it.”

“But she said she was coming. We have people who have come from all over to hear her.”

He told me that I was a little crazy for thinking she was my keynote speaker. But when I asked if we could send someone to get her, he replied, “What are you talking about? She can drive herself. Look, she’ll call you in the morning.”

Once I hung up, I knew it was time to think about a little thing I liked to call “Plan B.” Thanks to the help of novelist Katherine Towler, who was also reading at the conference, along with poet Joy Sawyer, journal therapy pioneer Kay Adams, and storyteller Meg Gilman, we whipped together a tribute for Grace.

The next morning, Grace called. “I feel terrible about this,” she said. I could hear the exhaustion in her voice.

“Look, Grace, it’s okay. We can do this without you. We’ll just do a tribute to you instead. We’ll read some of your writing and think of you.”

“I can’t believe I fucked this up,” she said, her voice gravelly with exhaustion. I told her it was fine,

“Are you sure?” She sighed. “Okay, just promise me that you’ll come and have tea with me sometime.” I told her I would.

I hung up in time to race to the cafeteria, find all my co-conspirators at a single table, and within 30 minutes, we had the tribute ready.

In front of all the conference participants, seated quietly although some looked puzzled as to why Grace wasn’t there, I explained what happened, and I told this story of calling Grace, and having Bob try – often without much success – protect her from both her popularity and her urge to keep giving to others. Gilman read one of Grace’s stories. Towler read four of her poems.

Than two others surprised us: Joseph Gainza and Sara Norton, who had worked on many peace and justice issues for decades alongside Grace, heard of the tribute and showed up to tell stories about Grace’s earnest compassion, great sense of humor and way of making everyone feel at home. They told of Grace’s remarkable equanimity and presence whether she was arrested at a protest, eating homemade pie in her living room, or reading a short story to a ballroom of over a thousand.

At the end of the tribute, one of the conference participants stood up and said, “I didn’t know Grace Paley before this, but now I realize we are all Grace.” Tears made her cheeks shine. I looked around the room where Grace should have been, and realized another kind of grace had overtaken us. The whole group sat in a silence for a moment, some smiling, some crying, thinking of Grace’s life of words and deed.

So that was grace, but grace is a surprising thing. Fast forward two meals later: It’s dinner, and I’m at a picnic bench with some conference attendants when I get a phone message: “Call Sara and Joseph immediately at this number. They have Grace and Bob with them, and they’re coming to the conference.”

Within 30 minutes, we had assembled most of the conference participants back in the haybarn. We set a chair next to the microphone, everyone sitting in a horseshoe of chairs, thrilled that the woman we fell in love with through her story and poems was actually about to walk right into that love.

And she did. Everyone sprang to their feet, some of us rushed up and hugged her, and people clapped, called out her name, and cheered as she sat down.

She glowed and yet was so utterly down to earth, a small woman on a folding chair who said in a Brooklyn accent untempered by years of living in Vermont that she could answer a few questions. Someone asked her about the war, and she told her of her hope for the world because people came out all over the world and protested the Iraq invasion before it happened, the first time, she reminded us, there’s ever been this kind of response to try to stop a war before it started.

Patricia Fontaine, a student and Vermonter, stood up and reminded Grace that recently in a speech she gave, she said her favorite word was “then.”

“It still is,” Grace told us, demonstrating through her presence (as well as her previous absence) how a story can seem to be over, but then – just like in Grace’s stories, just like in real life – something else happens.

I watched her stand to leave, the crowd again on its feet, and then she stayed for another 40 minutes, visiting with a young woman who gone to Sarah Lawrence, where Grace used to teach; posing for pictures with a Canadian Jung scholar, and hugging anyone who came to thank her. I posed for my own picture with her, all the time realizing that if liberation through our writing and lives is about anything, it’s about the grace of letting, and many times, helping the story that seems to be over to begin again. It’s about the freedom inherent in a simple word like “then.”

Friday, November 30, 2007

How to Live?

A steady question has circled me for years like a song I can't shake: "How to live?" When I was diagnosed with breast cancer over five years ago, it was as if someone turned up the volume of this question, and since then, I been regularly landing in moments when I felt paralyzed as to what to do with myself to live my life the way I should....or felt I should. I would stand in the middle of my living room, debating whether to put my feet up and read a book, or practice the cello (which I'm learning), work on poetry or teaching or something else that locks my eyes to my computer screen, do some yoga, take a walk, or clean out an obscure drawer. "What to do?" became the back beat behind "How to live?"

In the land of my mind, "How to live" is a number #1 hit, playing as gospel, rhythm and blues, hard-driving rock and roll (complete with those Bruce Springsteen-like howls), familiar Irish gigs, complex but haunting folk songs, and of course as blaring but sweet musicals (think "Oklahoma" meets "Rent"). While I'm learning the various tunes and hues of this question, I'm finding -- to paraphrase the poet Rainer Maria Rilke -- that I can only live my way into the answers (or, more likely, more questions).

For me, one of the clearest responses has been -- ironically enough -- trying to try less, and working to not work so hard, something almost impossible for my grasping mind to inhabit often, given my you're-not-alive-unless-you're-doing-something ways. Being my father's daughter, I carry within me the legacy of working passionately, but also obsessively, springing into doing something related to my brilliant and exhausting career at any given moment (2 a.m.? No problem, I'll just start up the computer; weekends? Oh, just this one thing and then... Vacation? Let me just answer a dozen emails first). Yet my father died relatively young after years of feeling sick and too busy to see straight. After my own list-carrying decades, delighting in crossing things off, and feeling generally compelled to immediately do whatever I think up, my very smart body refused to tolerate being dragged around like a pull toy from one overwhelm to the next.

To be honest, I'm didn't just realize the obvious easily. I sailed under the skies of low-grade, but chronic, unidentifiable illness for about three years. After visiting my oncologist (repeatedly), various other doctors, energy healers, acupuncturists, massage therapists, psychics, dear friends, the self-subscribed-to myths of my past, and all manner of big pills that came in glass bottles (herbs, vitamins, amino acids, etc.), I had a breakdown of sorts. In a small hotel room on the 8th floor of a Boston Marriott, in the middle of a conference at which I was presenting, and doing many manner of other tasks, and in the middle of various health dodahs all descending on me simultaneously, I heard one clear sentence: If you want to heal your life, you need to change your life.

Since that Boston epiphany, I started giving up things I used to do: extra work outside of and inside of my teaching position, overfunctioning with friends and family (on the premise that if I couldn't fix my own life, I could fix someone else's), and activities, thought-mazes and habits that took me away from being here, with myself as I am, in the present whatever the weather. I'm a slow learner in the art of surrender. Give me an urgent task and high speed internet, and I'm easily tempted to go galloping in my mind toward whatever is asked. Give me an excuse, and I can convince myself it's fine to take on yet another job (and rationalize how it's not too much). But the imperative to live a life of meaning in a meaningful way has been a patient and persistent teacher. My health, which tends to go south easily and for prolonged periods if I don't listen to my body, reinforces what I need to do....or not do.

Lately, though, I've been discovering something entirely thrilling and not so unexpected: Living with greater self-care, discipline and awareness makes me outrageously happy. I love watching the deer outside eying our bird feeder (which they empty out on a regular basis), sitting very still under the weight of the motor-purring kitten, and picking up the kids from school without feeling rushed. I love the open space and time that's always been right here, like the sky -- sometimes stripped in golden pinks and grays through the bare branches of the sycamore I watch while stopped at a light. I love having long stretches at home, and because I'm still hard-wired to keep doing things, using these stretches to re-organize the linen closet, make collages, or stare at old pictures I found of my parents and siblings. There is such a profound joy in the simple and constant art of cultivating space.

How to live is no longer such a rap-style mantra, complete with cross-blends of many stations playing at once, but more like a heart beat. Its rhythm is all around me. All I need to do is listen.