Literary Pursuits or Lack Thereof

I try to cut myself a break in the summer. It’s natural to slow down a little when the weather is hot and the sun is plentiful. And while I’ve spent plenty of time sitting in the garden and bobbing in the ocean, I’ve also been keeping my hand in the game. Here’s what I’ve accomplished so far this summer:

  • Started a poetry workshop that ran from late June to early August. The next term starts in September. I’m in the early stages of publicizing it.
  • Submitted individual poems to an average of five publications or contests a week and had five pieces accepted. I expect a 20:1 ratio of rejections to acceptances, so this is better than expected. Twenty-one other journals are still reviewing my submissions on Submittable.
  • Sent my manuscript Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore to a few different small presses, some of which were running contests.
  • Published two articles over at Gender Focus. The most recent is an essay about Princess Leia, my first feminist role model. Yes, I like science fiction. Don’t judge me. I’ll repost it here once it’s been up on Gender Focus for a while.
  • Typed and revised at least a few poems.
  • Started the MFA application process. Even though I don’t plan to start a program until summer of 2016, one of the programs I visited asked me to start a file with them now. In spite of my chops, I found filling out the initial application form incredibly daunting. It took me about three weeks to send it in.
  • Finished a review copy of Tawnysha Greene’s gorgeous and devastating new novel A House Made of Stars. I’m in the process of conducting an author interview.

Maybe that’s enough.

 

Gratitude List: Oranges, Etc

I used to post gratitude lists fairly regularly, along with other lists. That’s supposed to be what blogs are for: thoughts too long for Facebook, but too short or too rough for more polished forums. I’ve been in one of my shy-about-blogging phases, so here’s something to break the ice.

Great Mother, thank you for:

  • Oranges
  • Clean water
  • My job
  • Going home from my job
  • Deborah, Eugenia, Kelly, Wandajune, and other friends
  • Having $1.50 in change so I can buy a soda from the vending machine
  • The guys I sit with in the company cafeteria
  • The window next to my cubicle (I waited eight years for that!)
  • Daily coincidences that show me the Universe is on my side
  • Ball point pens
  • Clean underwear
  • Modern pharmaceuticals
  • Good healthcare
  • Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s workshop
  • Poet friends near and far
  • Jellyfish Magazine
  • Oddball Magazine
  • The Queer Open Mic at Fazenda in Jamaica Plain
  • The people coming to my poetry workshop this Thursday
  • The Boston Dyke March
  • Sweet, sweet sleep
  • My comfy bed

About Okelle

Self-portrait photograph of Frances Johnston, 1889-1910
A portrait of the artist as a young bohemian
Photo credit: Frances Johnston, on exhibit at Clio

Miss Ophelia Karen Elizabeth Laurel Lucia Emmett (commonly known as Okelle) was born into a prestigious Denver family fallen on hard times during the Great Depression of the 1970s. Due to the family’s lessened circumstances, Okelle was forced to sell matches and flowers on the streets of Denver after school during most of her formative years. She refers to this period of her life in her memoirs as the “burning flower” years.

After her mother attempted to sell her to a local brothel to pay off her mah-jong debts, Okelle absconded to San Franscisco with the family silver. There she made a name for herself among the buskers and street performers as Little Nell, the Singing Match Girl. Eventually she attracted the attention of a sociology professor from UC Berkeley, who recognized Miss Okelle’s as-yet-untapped intellectual prowess and groomed her for a scholarship position at the University. Okelle took advantage of the professor’s kindness and eventually earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from UC Berkeley before going on to study at Cambridge as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Cambridge, she met and married one of the descendants of the notorious Bloomsbury group and bore him a child whom they named Buttercup.

Poor little Buttercup met a terrible fate Continue reading “About Okelle”

Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Since I stopped posting drafts of poems to this blog, I find myself writing fewer drafts of poems. The instant gratification of a blog can become addictive, but without a workshop or some other audience — some other incubator of the work– my poetry becomes like a tree falling in a forest. Of course, the squirrels and sparrows and voles are there to hear the tree falling, but they don’t really give very productive feedback. Neither do the random strangers who click “like” when I post an unformed draft.

Going back to Barbara’s workshop would help, and I’ve been taking some baby steps in that direction. I rearranged my schedule so that I might go, but I still need to take the plunge, make the call, set the date that I will return. And figure out how to pay for it.

Photograph of a turf labyrinth
Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth

Poetry seems like such a slow crawl right now — like that point in a labyrinth when you see the goal in sight, but turn away from it on your journey toward it. It’s not that I’ve been stagnant, it’s just that generating new work has taken a back seat to polishing old work and sending finished work out to journals. Submitting work is strangely exhausting. It gets easier with time, and then again it doesn’t. But I need to trust that there’s no wrong turning, that there’s only the inexorable journey toward the center.

Continue reading “Ebb and Flow, Walking the Po-Biz Labyrinth”

Visual Art as a Tool for Healing (Going Public)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been living with a chronic illness for 25 years. Stress and complications with bronchitis caused a flare-up in early October. I spent about a week in hospital, and have been convalescing since then — I plan to return to work on a reduced schedule in the next week or so.

Writing has always been a major tool for me in making sense of (and peace with) these episodes. This past year though, in the depth of the illness I’ve found myself relying on right-brain visual self-expression. Words just haven’t seemed sufficient. Entering a pre-verbal space seems to get to the roots of my troubles in a deeper way and to allow healing to happen at a more fundamental level.

My family was highly creative, however we had an unspoken territorial agreement about who practiced what kind of art form. My father and mother were musicians, my brother was the visual artist, and I was the writer. While I had some early training in the visual arts, I chose to focus on writing partly out of respect for my brother’s “domain” and partly because writing was something that came very naturally to me. Visual art has continued to play a part in my life, though. I’ve kept this work private for the most part. But I think it’s time to send some of it out into the world.

I’ll be posting some of the images and artwork I’ve been creating since early October. Some readers may be more interested in the written word — and the name of the site certainly implies that that’s my primary focus. I like to think of creativity as being all of a piece, though.

Gratitude List: Fall Allergy Season Edition

• A wide social network
• Friends and family who know the me that exists beneath the facade of social media
• An emergency room just a few minutes away from my home that provides prompt, high-quality care
• A doctor’s office that knows my history and will see me when I’m sick
• Health insurance that makes it possible for me to seek out care without breaking the bank
• Knowing that many other people in my part of the world are suffering from respitory ailments — that I’m not alone in my suffering
• The kind of job that won’t fire me because I’m sick and can’t come to work
• Zyrtec, Robitussin, Tessalon pearls, and Albuterol
• A partner who’s willing and able to drive me to the doctor when I’m too sick to drive myself

There’s more to be grateful for than this. My life is changing very rapidly right now, and the stress of those changes has no doubt contributed to my getting so sick. But for today at least, I’m going to focus on resting, healing, and getting better. And on all the positive supports in my life that make that possible.

Gratitude List

  1. Fuzzy wool socks for cold feet at night
  2. A 3:1 household ratio of blankets to humans
  3. Cooler weather means the memory foam in our bed doesn’t give me night sweats anymore
  4. We finally paid off the bed
  5. A doctor who reminds me that the symptoms of my illness are not moral failings, that I don’t have to suffer through them in order to be a productive member of society
  6. A job that allows me to work from home AND provides me with office space (now with new, improved window cube!)
  7. Listening to Sharon Salzberg’s audiobook Lovingkindness while taking baths
  8. A partner who loves and accepts me in spite of my flaws
  9. A community of friends who love, accept, and support me in spite of my flaws
  10. It’s finally frickin’ Friday
  11. Getting two more hours of sleep last night after a solid week of insomnia.

 

Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?

This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001
This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001

Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both of these events make me contemplate rage. Continue reading “Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?”

Yin Work in the Summer

Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.

It was good timing.

This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.

This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.

The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.

Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving  them.

No matter how I succeed, it won’t be as good as my fantasies of success.

My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.

Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:

The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.

“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.