Thursday, 6 July 2017

Back to the Yoga Mat, Back to the Desk: On Going Deeper

Dave and me in Guatemala, at about the time of the 
"I like you" incident.
(If only we could have kept our eyes open!)
12 or 13 years ago, when we lived in Guatemala and worked in the same building, my husband Dave was working on a piece of writing. He does this every day of his life -- literally: Dave is a writing machine -- so why does this one instance stand out in my memory?

His work that day must have been short and not too biblically specific,* because he brought a draft of it down to my office and asked, "What do you think of this?" I ran my eye over the page. I don't remember what my problem was, exactly, with what he had written, but I looked up from my desk and said to him, "Well, I like you."

Dave had the good grace to laugh at this response. I laughed, too, once I heard how it sounded. It's since become a catchphrase, whenever one of us asks the other for feedback on a perhaps questionable idea.

("Do you think we should adopt a cat?" or "What do you think of putting just one more houseplant in this room?" Answer: "Well, I like you.")

Some might say that we have enough
houseplants already.
It's hard to give criticism to someone you love. It's hard to give criticism, period. (I mean criticism in the positive sense of the word. I mean giving feedback, with the goal of helping someone else improve or perfect the thing they are trying to do). Maybe the reason criticism is so hard to give is that most of us know how hard it is to receive.

In recent years, I've become quite passionate -- some might say, obsessive -- about a pair of activities that I see as inherently linked, in part because they both depend to a fair extent on receiving and working with another person's critique. I'm talking about yoga and writing.

In yoga, outside critique comes in the form of getting adjustments from your instructor. In writing, it's about asking other writers to make suggestions on how to improve your story. Necessary though it is to one's overall practice of yoga or story-writing, many people in both fields actively fear or dislike the critique.

I know some yogis who flinch whenever the instructor steps over to them. They freeze up; they think, Oh God, what am I not doing right? What mistake has this instructor just seen me make? Or they think: The teacher never adjusts Person X over there. Person X must be so much better at yoga than me.

Similarly, I know some writers who approach the writing workshop** -- the process by which a writer shows her work to others and receives feedback on it -- with unmitigated dread. With the feeling, almost, of seeing your own darling child (the story you've labored over so long!) attacked in front of your eyes.

Who am I kidding? I have been that fearful yogi, that insecure writer. I still am them, on given days.

The critiques in a writing workshop, as with a yoga instructor's adjustments, are meant to be helpful, of course. They're meant to help you see what you cannot see on your own, so that you can go back to the work and re-enter it more mindfully. Why, then, do we often experience such criticism as threatening? Why do we often receive an adjustment, or a suggestion for the story we've written, with a sinking heart? Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it. I'm really no good at this.

Writing and yoga both involve a quality of putting yourself out there -- of being seen. What is workshop feedback, or a yoga instructor's adjustment, but a direct outcome of someone else seeing you -- seeing your work? Perhaps it's not the first thing you think of. Writing is, after all, a mostly solitary activity. To do it, you almost have to be alone, and silent, and deeply focused. In yoga, too, the emphasis is on going inward -- on focusing on how your body feels in each posture, or on how each posture feels in your body.

In other words, in both writing and yoga, you're trying to do this thing that feels simultaneously very challenging and very important. Okay, at least that is how I experience these practices. I've been writing seriously for over 10 years, and doing yoga with an increasing sense of commitment for about half as long. I've already given myself -- a fair bit of myself -- to this work. I've put considerable time and effort toward doing these things with as much skill and understanding as possible, and I feel some ownership in them. At some deep-down, largely unspoken, cellular level I really don't want anyone else to fuck with my work. I am -- yes, sometimes -- afraid of being seen

As I've mentioned previously in this blog, I've been working for the past 2 years on my first full-length novel.***  It's been through 4 full-length drafts and has been critiqued by various fellow writers on several occasions. At times, with this novel, I feel like I'm living in it.

Almost exactly 1 year ago,
when I'd finished my first
full-length draft.
Part I of the novel -- approximately the first third -- is, I think, actually finished or nearly so. Recently I've been feeling good enough about it, and getting enough positive feedback on it, that I began to cherish the hope that I was almost done with the whole thing. Last month, I bashed through what I thought was a final draft of Part II. Yeah, baby! I thought. In another month now, the whole book should be done done done!

Dave had read Part I for me already and had liked it a lot. (Thank you, Dave.) Last week, I gave him my new draft of Part II. He read it while I was out of the house (doing some yoga, no doubt) and when I came back, I said, "So?"

Dave did not exactly say, "Well, I like you," but his response was not far from it.

It's too slow, he said in essence. You lost some of the tension you'd built in Part I. You got caught up in a story line that's not really essential. You need more scenes with these characters who cause the conflict, and less of this background building.

Oogh. Oogh and oogh and oogh.

You know that feeling when someone tells you exactly what you do not want to hear but you know at the same time it's right? I had to lie down on our living room floor for a minute.

"Honey, I'm sorry. Honey, are you okay?" Dave said, hovering over me.

"I'm okay," I said from the carpet. "Don't be sorry. I'm pretty sure you are right."

"Yes, but your voice has gone all flat like it does when you're sad," Dave said.

It had. I knew it had, because it felt like a boulder had crashed onto my chest, which would flatten out anyone's voice, wouldn't it? But I tried to tell him I'd be okay. "I don't want you to think I'm not grateful," I said. "I really am. I need to hear this. It's just that I can see how much work I still have to do, and I was really hoping I didn't."

The good news is that I did get up off the floor, after 10 minutes or so of pure wallowing. I didn't try to write anything more on that day. I had a glass of red wine instead and watched an episode of The Handmaid's Tale. (There's some good writing! Both the novel and the new TV series, in case you haven't read or seen them yet.) Gradually, over the next day or 2, I worked through my disappointment over how much more work I must do. I made some new plans. I outlined an 8-step process by which I will now get the last 2/3 of this novel into better shape. I can do each step individually -- it's the only way -- and each step should take between 1 full day and perhaps a few weeks. One step at a time, the work is not too overwhelming.

This new writing work is about going deeper into my practice, as the yogis say. You go deeper by hitting an obstacle but finding your way through it, simply by coming back to it and trying it again -- ideally with someone to guide you. A yoga teacher, for example. Or a fellow dedicated reader and writer, who will think through the obstacle with you, or even help you come up with a new approach.

The new 8-step plan for revision,
on the wall over my desk.
Going deeper cannot be rushed. In my yoga practice, for example, I cannot get my knee completely behind my shoulder yet, no matter how hard I try. I have confidence that I may be able to do this one day, but it will take months and probably years of returning to my yoga mat almost daily -- asking my body to move into this posture as much as it can, again and again, teaching it to go farther. It happens in increments. It happens only if you try again and again -- if you practice regularly.

Yoga is serious work. Writing is serious work. They are both disciplines of the mind and the body, and dare I say, soul.**** But you cannot, or I cannot, practice them in a vacuum. I need outside eyes, other hands.

* Much of Dave's academic writing is too specialized for me (or 99% of the world's population) to understand very well.

** The workshop format is commonly used at writers' conferences and in Creative Writing MFA programs.

*** I did write 2 novels when I was a kid. I don't think they really count. And I do have a novella -- a shorter book -- coming out this fall, hallelujah and FYI. (But no full-length novels. Not yet.)

**** Yes, writing is a discipline of the body. Just ask anyone who's tried to physically stay at her writing desk every day for a given number of hours

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Common Courtesy: Or, Life on a Small Island

Our street in Durham.
In Durham, England, the recycling-pickup truck comes equipped with an automated warning voice, blasted out at the decibel level of  a stadium football announcer: Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear. Vehicle reversing. [beep, beep] Stand well clear .... All right, you get the idea.

The voice is a clipped, posh-sounding, south-of-England male voice: Staahhnd WELL clear. Vehicle re-VUH-sing. Nothing and no one can stop these remonstrations as long as the recycling truck is, well, reversing. (That is to say, backing up.) And very often this truck seems to reverse the entire length of Victoria Terrace, the street below Dave's and my bedroom window, in the wee hours of morning. Once when this guy's stentorian tones woke us up, Dave rolled over in bed and said, "Now, what exactly is it that we should do while he re-VUH-ses?"

Thought I'd prefer they did not wake me up at half-six*, I'm sort of in love with the overly articulate warnings of British culture. Once when Dave and I were in Edinburgh, a fire alarm went off in the office building across from our hotel on St. Andrew Square. (It must have been a drill or a mistake, as we never saw flames.) With this alarm, too, came a loud, posh automated voice: "This is a fire alarm (FI-yuh ah-LAHM). Please vacate the building .... This is a fire alarm. Please vacate the building ...."

St. Andrew Square, in Edinburgh
Hearing this, I said to Dave, "It's just like that damn recycling truck. It not only beeps, it has a voice."

"The British like to make sure you understand why you have to do what you have to do," Dave remarked. "Think of their signage, too."

In America, if someone wanted you to keep your dog off the grass, the sign would just say, NO DOGS or at the very most, NO DOGS ON GRASS. But here the signs literally say, Dog owners are advised please to keep their dogs off of the grass. Dog feces attract rats and other vermin, which we here in the park would like to prevent for health reasons.

Dave and I went on listening to that Edinburgh fire alarm for a while, till he added, "I'm actually sort of surprised it doesn't say"--he affected an upper-crust accent--"'Caution, a fire is burning. Please stay well clear of the flames. The burning flames could cause harm to you, or to others. Please stay well clear of the flames.'"

We had our laugh, as we periodically do here in the UK over such things as signage and alarms. But really, isn't it kind of wonderful? Who in America would even bother to explain things so thoroughly, to try to reason with whomever is being cautioned? How many of us in America, upon seeing a warning sign three sentences long, would stop to even read the whole thing?

There's something about British culture, I think, that calls for a little more slowness, and a little more awareness of others, than we are used to in the US. Rather than flying past signs that are often more image than language -- really just semaphores -- you have to slow down a little in the UK, to read the more detailed signage. And the makers of British signs and alarms go out of their way to be polite, to offer explanations for their requests, in a way that feels, well, more personal. I've come to think there may be a link between being personal and thoughtful of others and having to live close to them.

In America, land of comparatively huge houses and roads and wide-open spaces, one's coworkers and friends and even one's neighbors may actually live miles away. Thus it may be easy to forget that we are not alone, after all, in the spaces we occupy. In England, meanwhile, the presence of others around you is hard to miss. The country of England is physically tiny. It's somewhat smaller than the state of Illinois -- 50,350 square miles, as opposed to Illinois's 57,910. On the other hand, England has a population density of approximately 1,100 people per square mile, while in Illinois the average number of people per square mile is 232. In other words, England has about 5 times as many people per square mile as the state of Illinois. People here live comparatively very close together, even in the English countryside and in small towns like Durham. This physical proximity, in my experience, breeds a kind of politeness -- an awareness of others -- that is not always present in the US, where we may take our big spaces for granted.

As one example, I remember when Dave and I had recently moved to downtown Chicago, to a condo in a converted warehouse. We were at the time teaching at a deeply suburban college, to which we commuted by train. Despite the 90-minute commute to work, Dave and I loved living in Chicago's Loop and raved about it to some of our colleagues at the aforementioned deeply suburban college. "It does sound really great," sighed a fellow professor. "The restaurants, the clubs, the museums! All the street life! But I'm not sure I could live so close to other people."

Downtown Chicago
"What do you mean?" we asked her. "Why not?"

"Well," she said, "how thick are those walls in your condo?"

Dave and I looked at each other. We didn't know. "Pretty thick?" I said. "Thick enough?"

"Yeah, but can you really blast your bass when you want to?" our colleague said. "Can you just turn your music up loud whenever you want to?"

It perhaps goes without saying that this former fellow professor of ours never did make the move downtown. And while I do get the joys of cranking up one's sound system, that feeling of "I should be able to make all the noise I want, whenever I want to" is a feeling that flourishes only in places where our neighbors feel distant from us. (Whether they actually are distant from us -- distant enough that we can jam out at three in the morning -- is another question. I wonder now if the other people who lived on that former colleague's street perhaps heard her bass beat sometimes, even without sharing a wall.)

Durham University students, on Kingsgate Bridge
Because we moved here from the U.S., where that mentality is stronger, Dave and I were leery of all the houses on our street in Durham that were occupied by twenty-year-old students. Durham is a university town, first and foremost; the population literally doubles every October when the new school year begins, so it's hard to find a street in town that doesn't contain student housing. But we did wonder, at first: Are all these university students going to stress us out? Are we going to be up at all hours because of some neighbor kids' wild parties?

The answer is, simply, no and no. (I feel I should touch wood as I write this; who's to say that nice red-headed guy who's always typing in the window across from my office won't turn on a disco ball this very night, invite his 30 best mates over, and fling his window wide? Except that I've watched him and his roommates come and go out for almost 2 years now, and I'm just pretty sure that they won't.) Dave and I do see students on our street every day. This time of year especially -- between final exams at the beginning of June, and graduation at the end of the month -- university students are out at night in full fervor. Most of the time, they seem to be going to fancy-dress balls. The guys wearing tuxes, the girls wearing gowns. This week alone, as I walked around town in the evening, I saw a guy in an actual top hat, two guys in tails, and two others in full-on Scottish kilts. 

Just like this. I kid you not.
The students are out and about. They are partying. I know this, too, because they sometimes throw up in the street. (The city always comes by and cleans up, the day after.) But do I ever hear them? I mean, ever hear them? Again, I hope I'm not jinxing myself as I write this, but I don't. These students are amazingly, wondrously, and -- to my American, noise-jangled mind -- almost miraculously quiet. 

Perhaps the university students never think of it this way, but their relative quiet, even in the midst of their June-long revelry, is a form of respect and politeness to others. I can totally get behind it. And even while the recycling truck's announcements at the crack of dawn and the voice-aided fire alarms may make me groan at times, or just laugh, I think the impulse behind them, too, is a form of respect and politeness. An acknowledgement that we're all sharing this space.

*That's how the British say six-thirty. Isn't it pretty? I think so.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

How to Live in Another Country

My sister Linda and me with our uncles
Phil and Rick and our Grandpa and 
Grandma Hostetter -- Nigeria, 1972.
June 8 is an historical day, both in my adopted country and in my country of birth. Here in the UK,  today's general election will determine the party in charge of the government. In the US, former FBI director James Comey will begin his testimony before the US Senate. Though this is essay is not politically themed, it seemed like a good day to reflect on my experiences moving from one country to another.

#     #     #

I used to think there was some mysterious trick to moving to another country and finding happiness there. I'd seen so many of my relatives do it before me. The most striking example was my grandmother's move to Lagos, Nigeria, when she was 51 and I was 3. I don't remember her leaving, but my parents took my sister Linda and me for a visit a few years later. That time in Lagos and then out into the hills in Nigeria's Middle Belt -- to see my much-adored and then very young uncles at their boarding school -- is one of my first memories. My grandmother loved Africa. People who'd known her before and after said she had blossomed there. She herself said, whenever one of her grandchildren asked her later for the story of her life, that Nigeria was the place where she felt she came into her own.

At about the same time my grandmother was teaching English in Lagos and loving it, my Uncle Doug and Uncle Earl and Aunt Pat were all living in Vietnam, where they worked for Mennonite Central Committee during the peak of the Vietnam War. (My Uncle Doug's story on teaching English in a war zone in South Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969, was recently published in The New York Times.) In these cases, too, I don't remember their departures for a distant country -- in fact, I wasn't yet born -- but again, my first memories of these beloved uncles and aunts were of hearing them discussed by family members who missed them. In my young mind, their names were linked to this other country where they had chosen to live.

My uncle, Doug Hostetter, with some of his students
in South Vietnam, circa 1969
In later years, other aunts and uncles of mine chose to live overseas, too. My Uncle Darrel and Aunt Sherill worked in Swaziland for a decade; my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Wilmer lived even longer than that in Honduras, where my aunt was a doctor to far-flung rural communities, and where the two of them started a ranch that they operate to this day. Still later, cousins of my own generation spent years in Germany and in Russia -- and became so intimately connected to those places, they met their spouses there.

All these family members forged deep, long-lasting links with a country other than the one they were born to. As a child growing up more or less in the midst of my parents' extended families, I grew up, too, with the echoes of Nigeria and Vietnam. At family reunions, I ate my grandmother's African ground nut stew, and learned of my Uncle Doug's fondness for Nước Mắm fish sauce. I was struck when my Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl, meeting a Vietnamese refugee family recently arrived in North Carolina, were able to greet them and converse with them in their own language. Knowing my grandmother -- knowing Aunt Pat and Uncle Earl and Uncle Doug -- was to know something of those other countries, to be aware of Nigeria and Vietnam as almost palpable presences in the lives of my relatives who had lived in those places and had come home permanently changed by them.

Having such positive and early role models for thoughtful expatriate living, I assumed I could do it as well. I wanted to do it -- to make a life for myself overseas, to become part of another country. In the stories I'd heard all my life, it was an adventure -- a worthwhile endeavor -- to live outside the U.S. for a while.

And yet, I struggled in my first attempts. I did live in Spain for a year. I did live in Guatemala, on two separate occasions, for a total of over three years. But I was not radiantly happy. I was not at peace. Almost as soon as I made those moves -- all three times -- I wished I was home again. I could not relax; I could not settle down and just be there, in Spain or in Guatemala. I never felt like I was part of the place. By the time I came back to the States from my last attempt at international living, in 2005, I'd developed a new, mostly secret opinion that my grandmother and aunts, uncles and cousins who'd filled me up with their stories of joyful expatriate living must have been exaggerating. 

But here is the question I hadn't yet thought to ask: What does it take, to be happy in a given place?

The ex-academic in me wants to make two caveats before I go on. Not everyone who moves to another country gets to ask that happiness question. Not everyone who moves to another country does so by choice. In fact, choosing to live in an other country is a luxury. This seems especially important to acknowledge in light of current well-publicized anti-immigrant attitudes in both my home country and in my adopted country. We need look no farther than the U.S. election of Donald Trump, the man who has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and has tried to enforce a sweeping anti-immigrant travel ban. Here in the UK, last year's Brexit vote resulted in part from a similarly xenophobic mentality. As someone who sees Trump's election and the Brexit vote as real failures of human compassion, I want to recognize that moving to another country in search of adventure or edification or self-improvement -- as I and many of my family members have been able to do -- is a sign of our privilege, our unearned good luck.

It's worth acknowledging, too, that in many parts of the world, living outside one's home country is not so unusual, and thus perhaps not so monumental a choice as it seemed to me as a kid growing up in the U.S. For example, here in Europe I automatically assume any person my age will have lived in at least one other country besides their native one. Almost all of my friends in England have either come here from another country or have spent significant time living abroad. This is partly a feature of European countries being mostly quite small and close together -- often contiguous -- as opposed to the hugeness and physical isolation of the United States. It also has something to do with the UK's having been part of the European Union, which makes it easy for members of EU countries to live, work and travel abroad.* Simply getting to another country is much easier to do, in most parts of Europe, than in the U.S. Thus international living may not seems as challenging, or as exotic, as it does to many of us raised on the other side of the Atlantic.

But why couldn't I be happy living abroad, as the giants of my childhood had seemed to assure me I'd be? Why, in Spain and then twice in Guatemala, was I so restless, so unable to sink down deep roots?

It wasn't until two years ago, when my husband Dave and I moved to England -- where I have been, from the day we touched down, truly happy -- that I was able to answer these questions. And the answer isn't one bit arcane or mysterious. There's no magic trick to it, after all. All I needed to live happily in another country, I've found, is to be happy first in myself.

Or, to put it in a perhaps less annoyingly Zen-like way, my happiness in England is directly connected to my happiness in the work that engages me daily here. England has provided the conditions for my doing the work that I love to do. And, while there are many reasons why I like living in England, I think this one is first and foremost.

Dave and me with the staff of the language school
I directed in Guatemala City, 2003 to 2005.
It wasn't that I'd disliked Spain or Guatemala. It wasn't that I failed to find very good friends in both places. Nor was it that the work I did in any of those former expatriate years was unworthy. But I was one of those people to whom a clear sense of vocation came very late. I spent my 20s and 30s and much of my 40s doing work that did not fulfill me -- that did not draw out my best qualities or, in short, help me to be my best self. During those somewhat misbegotten decades, I was an activist and an academic. I was at least fairly good at both things. But I did not love doing that work. I did not go to bed holding the work I'd just done close to my heart, dreaming of re-entering its flow as soon as I could the next day. Working as an activist, then as an academic, did not call forth my joy, and as such I didn't always have much joy to give to others.

When I finally admitted to myself, somewhere in my late 30s, that my calling -- my heart's desire -- is to be a fiction writer, it came as a huge relief. I could stop forcing myself into the mold of an  English professor, as I'd been trying to do for some years. I could, instead, throw myself into the activity I had loved ever since I could hold a pencil. I could re-sharpen and deepen my skills in creative writing. I could invent stories, new worlds.

Early story-writing, circa 1973.
Or, at least, I could begin to. Dave's and my financial circumstances did not allow me to step completely out of my old teaching role until we moved to England, two years ago, and that is when true daily happiness in my work began.

As it turns out, my journey to another country, this time, was really a journey into my truest, best self. Clearly, we don't all need to move physically -- to change our current locale for a new, international address -- in order to find our best selves. But sometimes, maybe, it helps. I think it was so in my grandmother's case. Moving to Nigeria in her early 50s provided her with a freedom from housework and a scope for her imagination and an engagement with a meaningful, independent career for the first time in her life.

She did not stay in Nigeria; she came home again after six years. But Nigeria, in essence, came home with her. The new, more confident, more leader-like part of herself -- which she'd reached down and found and developed, while she lived abroad -- was, for as long as I knew my grandma, a part of her ongoing joy.

* Brexit, of course, will curb some of this international mobility, among other things.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Time, Death, and the Novel

Some books I have to read over and over, once a year or every few years, because they encapsulate a truth or a kind of beauty I can't get enough of, and with each reading I experience that beautiful truth -- or that true beauty -- in a new, more nuanced way. One such book is Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, though it also contains a chapter so painfully poignant to me, for a long time I couldn't bear to re-read it and had to skip over it in my second and third and fourth readings. It's a chapter about the nature of time, and time's passing:

What does it feel like to be alive?

Living, you stand under a waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. It is time pounding you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side as your generation's short time is falling away, as fast as rivers drop through the air, and feeling it hit.

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang onto the ring. Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.*

Ka-wowza, right? As I say, the first time I read it, this passage knocked the breath out of me, and for a long time after, whenever I returned to An American Childhood, I'd carefully avoid that particular chapter. It cut too close to the bone. It reminded me too much of how I had felt in mid September 2007, the week after my mother had been pulled from a car that looked like a sheet of paper crumpled into a ball, and for a few days after we had not known whether or not she would survive. The day of the accident, I flew home from Chicago to North Carolina, and sometime that weekend I left the hospital to walk around my parents' now-empty house, looking at all the framed photos. Here was my mother holding my cousin's new baby (oh, how my mother loves babies!). Here she was on the beach with one of my twin sisters on either side of her. There she was in her black-and-white wedding portrait with Dad; there she was, too, thirty-five years later, in a family photo from my brother's wedding.

Technically, this is not one of the photos of my mom
that are visible in my parents house. But I love it.
Here she is with my dad, circa 1962.
That night, those photos no longer looked like milestones along a path that would go on unfolding endlessly, as long as I wanted it to. The photos looked, suddenly, more like relics.

I remember thinking, Is this it? Is it over already? Is this all the time with my mother that we're every going to get?

Though my mother did live -- though she is, thank God, still holding babies and attending weddings and going to her beloved beach -- that week in 2007 when none of us knew whether she would live was the first time I felt the utter finiteness of human life. Why had I thought that my mother's life -- or anyone's -- would go on forever and ever? Against all the hard evidence the world offers us to the contrary, how had I assumed that our time together was boundless?

Time is precious, as one cliché goes. Time is a commodity, goes another. But often in our western culture, such sayings are used as a reason to rush on the next task or event, to move forward, to get on with things.Westward ho! Climb ev'ry mountain! The greener pastures are yet to come.

The more I think about this mentality, the stranger it seems. If this minute right now while I'm writing this -- if the minute right now while you're reading this -- is unrepeatable, is unique: if in fact there'll never be another minute again quite like this one, and we'll never get this minute back, why wish it away? Why burn through it? Rather than valuing the space I'm in here and now, why focus so often on what happens next?

With one part of my now fifty-year-old brain, I do appreciate all this hard-won knowledge about transience and mortality and the beauty of the present moment. I can stomach such knowledge better now, in the middle of middle age, than I could in my thirties, when I first read An American Childhood and that chapter on time broke my heart.

Even so, I'm as guilty as the next person of romanticizing the future. I participate regularly, often unwittingly, in the greener-pastures-are-over-there mentality that American culture seems to propagate. What can I do or achieve, I often wonder, that will make me feel better in the near future? Should I buy a new dress, a new yoga mat? Get a new job, or move to a brand-new locale?

It seems to be part of my nature to ardently look forward to the next thing, the next phase of life -- to think that everything will somehow be better, around the next bend in the road. I did it in high school, wanting the weekend to come. I've done it often since the 2016 U.S. elections. (When, oh when, will it finally be 2020?)

I'm not saying we don't sometimes actually need to make changes -- need them for important physical or emotional or even spiritual reasons. (The need for a change in U.S. leadership is an obvious example. And my last yoga mat, I'm here to tell you, really was a piece of crap.)

But earlier this week I came face to face with my own impulse to change things as soon as they get slightly unpleasant or difficult -- to submit to the romance of What else? or what next? And that confrontation has made me want to think more deliberately about time and how I live within time.

Earlier this week, I found myself growing restless -- mentally restless. I kept thinking, Am I doing what I should be with my life? Maybe I should start teaching English again. Should I volunteer as a tour guide at Durham Cathedral? Should I become a yoga instructor?

I even felt restless with Durham and England, for the first time since Dave and I made the move. It's been twenty-two months that we've lived here now, so I wondered: Is this super-delayed culture shock?

Finally, two nights ago, I sat down with Dave and told him how I was feeling. I said, "I don't mean that I necessarily will make any one of these changes. But I'm feeling these sudden, kind of strong urges, and I want to tell you about them."

I told him. He listened. Then he said, "Don't you think this is mainly about your novel?"

As some of you know, I've been writing a novel. I've been working on it pretty hard for the past two years. Most of the time I find this work absorbing, even all-consuming, in a deeply enjoyable way. Most of the time, writing the novel has felt to me as violin playing feels to the character in Alice Munro's wonderful story, "My Mother's Dream": "It is a problem that she has to work out strictly and daringly, and that she has taken on as her responsibility in life." For the past two years, as I've sat down at my writing desk day after day, "the problem is still there in its grandeur," as Munro writes.**

Dave Janzen,
who is so marvelously wise
This summer, however, I am closing in on the end of this work. By July or August, my novel will most likely be out of my hands, on its way out into the world.

But what if it never gets very far? What if this novel is in fact not very good? What if, as with my last yoga mat, I'm just thinking or hoping that it will be awesome, but it's really a piece of crap?

I don't normally think this way. (If I did, I probably could not keep writing.) But seeing the finish line approaching this summer has stirred up these fairly rare anxieties. I can think whatever I want to about my work so long as I keep it close to my chest -- so long as I never declare the novel finished and send it out to an agent. But once I do, there comes the real, public test.

My desire to move or to change something, Dave suggested last night, came from such recent anxieties. "You're in a more uncomfortable space with your work now," he said, "and so your mind has started casting around for basically anything else you can do."

Ka-wowza again, I have to say. Dave was right. I knew it as soon as he said it.

"The real challenge," Dave added, "is to stay in this less-than-comfortable space. Stay with the work, stay in the moment. Don't try to jump out of it."

The challenge, in other words, is to be where I am, to do what needs doing in the given day without being too distracted by what comes before this or after. It reminded me of one of the major precepts of yoga -- or the one, at least, which has been coming through to me more clearly and resonantly lately.

Sometimes when we're holding a difficult posture in class, the yoga teacher will say, "Your body will want to move out of this posture. Your brain will come up with all sorts of tricks to get you to move, to change your position. But see if you can breathe through it. Can you breathe into the moment? Can you achieve stillness in any way?"

My writing desk
Stillness in yogic practice isn't really about lack of physical movement, or it's not mainly about that. It's a mental stillness -- an absolute okay-ness with where you are, even if there are unpleasant elements. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't make a change when our context  has become dangerous or damaging. As my yoga teachers also say, in encouraging us to stick with a hard posture, "If you feel sharp shooting pains, then you should move -- you should get out of the posture."

On the other hand, they usually, gently add, if all you're feeling is just some discomfort, try to stay with it. Keep breathing. See what you can learn from this space, from this moment, from being right here, right now.

I'm gonna stay in this saddle, then, despite some nervousness and a few bruises. To put it another way, I'll keep standing under this waterfall, trying to breathe and to love it.

* From pages 50 to 51 in the 1987 Harper and Row edition. I have compressed from the original.
** From pages 318 to 319 in 1998 Vintage International edition. I have compressed from the original.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Grace Brackbill Hostetter -- In Memory

My grandparents' engagement photo,
My maternal grandfather and grandmother, B. Charles and Grace Brackbill Hostetter, were married on May 3, 1939. She was twenty, he twenty-two. My grandma, a life-long gardener and all-around lover of plants, had wanted to be married outdoors, in her parents' back yard in eastern Pennsylvania, among the lilac bushes that usually bloomed at that time of year. It was an unseasonably cold spring, however, and rain fell on their wedding day. Married indoors--and without lilacs, after all--Charles and Grace nonetheless enjoyed an uncommonly long and happy union.

This month marks the 78th anniversary of their wedding. Charles died in 1997, a few months short of celebrating 58 years of marriage to Grace. Grace, however, lived on in the kind of robust health and bright spirits that inspires me more and more as I get older. My grandmother died this past August, almost 98 years old and utterly herself--strong minded, humorous, sometimes impatient, gracious to everyone she met--down to the end. As my own mother recently reminded me, this Mother's Day (celebrated in the U.S. on the second Sunday of May) is the first our family has known without Grace Brackbill Hostetter. In my grandmother's memory and in loving honor, I've decided to dedicate today's blog post to her.

Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter and me, c. 1989
My grandmother lived in different parts of the U.S. and in different parts of the world, including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Nigeria. At her memorial service last August, I gave a brief reflection on my memories of her life in North Carolina, the place where her life and my life most overlapped.[i] What follows is a version of that reflection, originally given at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

* * * * *

My sisters and brother and I grew up next door to Grandpa and Grandma's. It's a house that has been, in various years, reddish-brown and off-white, but which in my mind will always been green--because that was Grandma's favorite color, the color she wanted her house to be.

For us King siblings who were lucky enough to live one driveway down from our grandparents, that house is one image we share--as we also shared meals around Grandma's dining room table, and car trips to Black Rock or Sunset Beach; as we shared Lake Hickory with her on countless summertime swims.

Grandpa and Grandma--with some of Grandma's beloved
plants--outside their house in North Carolina.
When I recently asked my siblings and their children for memories of Grandma in North Carolina, they gave me such beautiful answers that a host of new images emerged. When a grandchild or two got the urge to built teepees in the back yard, Grandma went out and made teepees with them, with long sticks and African cloth that she supplied from her house. She took grandchildren out walking the lane to collect litter (an environmentalist before it was trendy). Babysitting her great-grandchildren, as she did one day a week for many years, she'd take them swimming or on nature walks, or teach them to make chocolate pudding. She came to everyone's birthday party. None of us ever knocked on her door; we just rang the doorbell as a signal that we were coming in, and then we just went in.

She made chicken and waffles, and homemade rolls, and the oatmeal raisin cookies she'd always offer because they were healthy, when you really wanted chocolate chip. She believed in taking care of her health.

Both of my grandparents were serious swimmers. "When we were little," my sister Sandy recalls, "Grandpa and Grandma would come over to our house to ask if we wanted to go swimming at the lake or at [a neighbor's] pool. We always knew that Grandpa wanted the pool, and Grandma wanted the lake. But Grandma loved swimming so much, she'd always go with you to either place, to the pool or the lake."

Grandma in the last week of her life (August 2016)--
still interested in talking to everyone around her.
Grandma listened to us. She made us feel loved. But it wasn't just us family members who received her love. Grace Hostetter never met a stranger. She was interested in everyone's story.
"We were so lucky," my siblings concluded, one way or another, when I asked them for these memories. "I'm so grateful to have had her--this force of Nature!--in our lives for so long."

As I worked on these reflections of my Grandma's life in North Carolina, it dawned on me that she was the first truly cosmopolitan person I knew. My grandmother showed me the world is made up of so many different countries and cultures--so many different kinds of people, each with their own way of thinking and talking and eating and dressing and praying--and that this diversity is fascinating, is one of God's gifts.

My parents took my sister Linda and me to visit Grandpa and
Grandma, and our uncles Phil and Rick, in Nigeria in 1972.
When you're a kid, you receive this information not through lectures or lessons, but through small daily signs, like the embroidered turban and robe Grandma brought back from Nigeria and wore to give talks in churches about her experience there--or like the sleeveless purple tie-dyed mini-dress that she made from Nigerian cloth, and wore so stylishly in her 60s and 70s. (A dress, I might add, that several of us granddaughters borrowed from her in our 20s, and occasionally continue to wear.)

Or there was her African ground-nut stew, an elaborate meal which as a child I merely tolerated--and which made me feel like a grown-up, when I finally acquired the taste. Grandma was the person you went to in Hickory when you needed a slightly more exotic ingredient. She'd reliably have fresh ginger, and garlic bulbs, and coriander.

She also collaborated with me in some of my early experiments in fashion. I had the ideas, but she had the seamstress's skills, and the interest to boot. My favorite clothing collaboration with Grandma was a pair of newsboy-style gray woolen knickers, circa 1982.
Newsboy knickers!

From Grandma, I also learned to make your daily practices, your everyday lived-in spaces, beautiful: to serve your desserts in small crystal dishes with stems, each one set on a small china plate, or to make centerpieces for your table by arranging candles inside a small houseplant.

Grandma had aesthetic vision. She cared about how things looked. She cared about how people looked, too, including herself--not exactly a quintessential Mennonite trait, but one I secretly loved her for, because it was one way in which she was gloriously human, involved in this concrete world.
Grandma with all 8 of her children, Christmas 2015

At the same time, I always knew that Grandma loved God and believed in serving God through serving other people. It's a legacy alive and well in her children--in my mother, I my uncles and aunt, in the people all of them married--and these people, the extended Hostetter family, were my first role models, my first teacher of how to be a compassionate, God-loving, other-loving citizen of this world.

This is the family--this is the legacy--that my grandma, Grace Brackbill Hostetter, helped to create.

[i] These are memories mainly from my adolescence, the last time I lived in North Carolina. I may try to write more, in a few weeks, about my later impressions of Grandma, as I left my 20s and she entered her 70s.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Adventures in UK Healthcare, Part 2: Or, My Immersion in England's North East

“Would you like vodka or gin in this cocktail?” the anesthesiologist asked as he put me under, just prior to my surgery at University Hospital of North Durham in March.

It’s the last thing remember, before I woke up 5 hours later. At least I had gone to sleep smiling.

That anesthesiologist looked more like Gene Parmesan than any other person I’ve ever met, and he and I already had quite the repartee going. I’d met him an hour beforehand, in a consultation room where we ran through some basic pre-surgery questions.

Gene Parmesan
But when I first walked into that consultation room and greeted him, he’d startled me by exclaiming, “Well, there’s an accent that feels like home!”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking. He did not sound American to me. “Really?” I said. “Where are you from?”

When he said, “Glasgow,” I was even more confused.

“You think I’m Scottish?” I said. It’s possible that my American accent has been altered somewhat by 20 months of living in England, but I’d never dreamed a Scottish person would take me for one of their own.

But I understand now what happened. When I first spoke to him, his ear caught out a sound that was, at least, different – an accent that didn’t belong to the North East of England.

In my room at the Durham hospital,
March 2017
In the Durham hospital, it seemed, everybody was local: almost all of the staff, and every other patient but me. I was immersed in North Eastern culture as never before. Of all the patients and nurses and nurses’ aides who spent their days on Ward 9 with me, I was the only non-English person. Everyone was white as the snow except for the doctors who dashed in and out on occasion, many of whom were of African or South Asian descent. The only accents I detected that were not North Eastern belonged to those fleetingly-heard doctors, too.

That Scottish anesthesiologist, I think, felt some instinctive affinity for me – or my voice – simply because I didn’t sound like almost everyone else in our milieu. Though he and I ultimately agreed our accents are not the same, in the Durham hospital we did have in common a sense of standing out in a crowd.

I was in that hospital for 5 solid days, and I kept my ears open. The North Eastern accent became a kind of background music that played all day long and all night. I was so immersed in this particular sound, I heard it even as I fell asleep.

The North Eastern accent is very distinctive: to my ear, it is high-pitched and lilting, with extra emphasis on the long vowels. It was also, to my ear, exotic. It was strange to me; it was new.

It’s not what I’m used to in Durham, which may be surprising, since Durham is a town set smack dab in the middle of England’s North East. But Durham is an anomaly in this region. It simultaneously partakes and does not partake of the local North Eastern culture.

While I’d never claim to be an expert on North Eastern culture, I think I can say that the popular musical and film Billy Elliot tried to capture certain aspects of it. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Billy Elliot – filmed in County Durham – portrays this part of England as far from the centers of political power and wealth.[i] The North East of England was once defined by blue-collar jobs such as shipbuilding and mining. Now, as those jobs have disappeared, the region is on the whole economically depressed. These circumstances, combined with the North East’s geographical isolation from England’s capital and larger cities, cause some to view it as a sort of English backwater.

On the other hand, it is a part of the country where communities are close-knit and people are generally very friendly, and the pace of life is gentle, laidback.[ii] People seem proud to belong here – to identify as being Geordie.[iii] There’s even a vocabulary particular to the region – a vocabulary I find entrancing. Here’s a sampling of it, based on notes I took from my Durham hospital bed:  

Eeeee =           Oh my; oh my God

            Bairn =            Child; kid

            Champion =    Awesome (e.g. “Eeeee, that’s champion!”)

            Aye =              Yes; sure

            Ta =                Thanks

            Us =                Me (e.g. “Go on & give it to us!” – as the speaker extends a hand)

            Me =               My (e.g. “She was me mentor in school.”)

Meself =         Myself

            Dead =            Very; extremely (e.g. “My garden was dead sunny yesterday.”)

            Canny =          Quite a (e.g. “He’s a canny lad;” "I've a canny few syringes here.”)

            Pinch =           To borrow (e.g. “Can I just pinch that folder off you?”)

There's the North East of England!
If I’ve gotten any of the above vocabulary wrong (or attributed a North Easternism to an expression that is actually more widely used), I hope my UK friends will forgive. The point is, all this North Eastern-ness felt new to me. In the local hospital, I was surrounded by it for the first time. It is possible, I learned through this hospital stay, to live in Durham for a while, as I have, and never interact much with North Eastern culture.

Within the context of the North East, the town of Durham often feels like a world set apart. As the home of a World Heritage Site cathedral and castle, as well as a world-class university, Durham has a very different flavor than most of the surrounding small towns, many of which were mining towns in the last century. Walking around Durham most days, you’re more likely to hear Southern accents (the university students and profs) – or languages other than English (tourists and expatriates) – than you are to hear the local accent.

Durham, in my experience, is a surprisingly cosmopolitan town. Even today, in my yoga group, 6 of us were standing around afterward, and someone said, “I think each one of us is from a different country!” It was true. We went around the circle and each said our home country: Germany, Iran, Poland, Sri Lanka, England, and the US.

Durham Cathedral
Adding to this international atmosphere is the fact that various blockbuster films have been shot in Durham over the years, including Elizabeth and some of the Harry Potters. Even as I write this, the latest installment in The Avengers is being filmed in Durham Cathedral. (Dave called from his office to tell me. He’s been watching the film crew set up there all morning.) Does this mean that Robert Downey, Jr. is now prowling the streets of Durham? I can only hope this is true.

It makes sense, given my own predilections and life experiences, that I’d be drawn to this more global aspect of Durham, and that my friends here are – almost exclusively – fellow expatriates, or English people from different regions. In the classic “town and gown” divide, I’ve lived almost entirely on the “gown” side.

The Durham hospital, for me, was where local and global cultures finally met.

Some of the gowns in the town!
By the morning of the day after my surgery, I felt more or less like myself, at least mentally speaking.[iv] I began to converse with anybody who walked into my hospital room. The younger nurses’ aides, especially, found my Americanness to be a great novelty. “I’m so glad you are here,” they’d say kindly, as a way to make me feel welcome. Sometimes they asked, “How do you stand being so far from home?”

Or they’d joke with me about how I’d have to write to my family to say how well I’d been treated in Durham. “Tell them you’ve got a penthouse suite with a view of the sea!” one nurse quipped. Really it was a room about 10 feet square, with no TV or WiFi, nor yet with a toilet or shower. (Those were a ways down the hall.) My room over looked the emergency room entrance, one floor below – my window open, I heard ambulance crews unloading there every night – with the sea about 10 miles away.

One nurse’s aide stopped alongside my bed to list all the places she’d lived. She counted them off on her fingers. Consett, Chester-le-Street, Bishop Auckland. To someone (moi) used to the wide spaces of the US, those towns are all suburbs of Durham – a 20 minutes’ drive at the most. “But I got homesick there,” the aide said of her residence in those other towns. “I had to come back to Durham.”  

Lake Louise, in the Canadian Rockies
Summer 1992
It would be easy – too easy – to paint the staff of Ward 9 as provincial. But that wouldn’t be a fair representation. They were as lively and interesting a mix as you might found in any town Durham’s size, if you look hard enough. One nursing staff member had spent a week in Toronto, on a birthday trip with her father; from there they’d flown to Calgary, rented a car, and driven across the Canadian Rockies to Lake Louise and Vancouver. She listed the places of interest they’d driven through, and one by one I remembered those places, too – from the same drive I’d taken, with my friend Jennifer Lindberg, when we were in our mid 20s.

There was also the male nurse, obviously gay, whom I’ll call Andy. With his Geordie haircut and a fully, beautifully made-up face every morning, he sang 80s pop songs as he made his rounds – and was obviously a favorite among the staff. Andy was the one who determined, my second day on the ward, that my bed was too short for me. He went to the trouble to find an extra block of foam and to wedge it at the bottom of my hospital bed, to give my mattress more length. 

Cup of tea, with NHS logo, and
my compression-stockinged feet
Meals on Ward 9 were a big part of the day. At least, they provided regular markers of the day passing. Breakfast at 8:00; a hot drink and biscuits (i.e. cookies) at 10:00, then lunch at noon. (I was often delighted to have, as a cross-cultural experience, the choice between fish and chips or pork pie.) Around 5:00 we had tea – in other words, supper – and then a hot drink again. My last several days on the ward, I often missed the hot drinks cart as it came around because I was in the halls, walking. By then, however, the nursing staff knew all about me. They’d leave a cup of tea by my bed – black, with one packet of sugar, the way I like it – without having to ask anymore. Once when I came back to my room and found my tea waiting, Andy winked and said, “We’ll be charging you board next!”

While 5 days seemed a very long time to stay in the hospital, the memories I took away are of people’s almost unmitigated good humor and kindness. The staff consulted me about when I wanted my morphine drip stopped, and when I was ready to have the Novocaine-administering ports in my abdomen removed as well – and finally, when I wanted to go off Codeine. (In this way, by the time they released me, I was no longer taking anything but Paracetamol, i.e Tylenol.)

Walking the halls of Ward 9
I also remember the nurse who brought me a fan in the night when my temperature rose, and then directed the breeze deliciously onto my face. Another nurse, seeing me pace the short hall of Ward 9 for an hour – I was restless! and I wanted the exercise! – encouraged me to get dressed and wander the hospital freely.  

Of course, there were aspects of my hospital stay that felt strange, even alien. There was the aforementioned room, Spartan by most US standards, with the bathroom away down the hall. (I was grateful, though, not to be a room with 5 or 10 beds, as I’d been warned could easily happen. As I walked around Ward 9 myself, I spotted several rooms with multiple beds—all of them occupied. It seems, on this count, I simply lucked out.)

But as strange as some features of a UK hospital stay seemed to me, I know I was strange to the people who took care of me, too. They handled me with good grace. Sunday lunch, for example, is a huge deal in England. It’s usually a “Sunday roast” – a meal comprised of roast meat, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and some sort of nominal veg. Apparently it is as an important and cherished a Sunday tradition as going to church used to be.

But when Andy came around, Sunday lunchtime, to offer the beloved Sunday roast, I asked, “Could I just have a sandwich instead?”

Sunday roast
He did not, or could not, hide his horror from me. “A SAND-wich?!” he said, with one hand at his throat. I might as well have said I felt like eating a baby puppy.

But to his credit, once he got over his shock, Andy found a cheese sandwich for me.

[i] And if you haven’t seen Billy Elliott, I recommend it; the film is funny and tender and genrally brilliant.

[ii] To paint in broad strokes, I might say that the North East of England – politically, economically, and culturally – is to the rest of England as the South of the U.S. is to the rest of that country.

[iii] The term “Geordie” used to refer to anyone from England’s North East. If I understand correctly, it’s often used more narrowly now, for inhabitants of Newcastle and its suburbs.

[iv] This essay, apparently, will not dwell much on medical matters. But I did come through surgery well; I did recover from it very quickly. My surgeon wanted me to stay in the hospital for what seemed a long time, however, because I lost a fair bit of blood during the operation; he wanted to get my hemoglobin levels back up before he let me out onto the streets.