Thursday, 29 December 2016


I hope to keep this blog going through 2017 -- posting once a week, on Thursdays. To make this plan sustainable, I'll be taking every 7th week off. (Hey, we all need a sabbatical every once in a while. Or you can blame this decision on the Christmas coma, in which I'm now deeply immersed.)

See you all back here next Thursday -- on 5 January 2017. Happy New Year!

Meanwhile, here's a picture of Dave and me looking very "wuthered" this year, on the Isle of Iona, Scotland.
 July 2017: It doesn't really rain on Iona all summer long.
Sometimes, it just feels that way

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Christmas Coma

“Oh, I love it in England,” the woman at the party enthused. “I think you will, too.”

She was Canadian and I, a U.S. American. Though we probably would not recognize each other as quasi fellow citizens, were we to meet in our homelands, I’ve found that here in the U.K., Canadians and Americans do acknowledge a bond.

My new Canadian acquaintance had lived in Durham for almost a decade and couldn’t, she said, imagine going “back there” to live anymore. Back there, we both understood, meant North America.

This was a year ago, at a mutual friend’s Christmas party. I’d been living in England for just a few months and was eager to hear how a fellow North American viewed the culture, after having been immersed in it much longer than I.

Christmas decorations in London, this year

“Say what you will about the English,” my new acquaintance remarked, “but their pace of life is healthier than any I’ve encountered before. There’s a real, humane balance between ‘on’ time and down time, between work and play. And people here take their downtime to heart. They know how to hang out and just be with each other. When you go to a dinner party, no one brings their phone to the table. People here don’t live to work. It’s not that they don’t work when it’s time, but I don’t get the cutthroat, competitive vibe here nearly as much as at home. The English seem much more laidback.”

“I always thought of Canada that way,” I said.

She nodded sagely, as most Canadians do when you tell them that you, as a U.S. American, have long admired their culture. Yes, she admitted, but England was another step forward. “In terms of a slower, healthier pace of life,” she said, “England is to Canada as Canada is to the U.S.”

“Wow,” I said. “I think you’re right. I am gonna like it here.”

While this has generally turned out to be true, I made this proclamation last year without having yet experienced what another friend of mine – an Englishwoman – refers to as the Christmas coma. I’m not sure how widely used the term “Christmas coma” is, but having lived through it once and preparing to survive it again very soon, I now know the phenomenon it describes: a period starting around Christmas Eve and extending past New Year’s Day, in which the country of England, for all intents and purposes, shuts down. Most people hibernate for the duration with their families; they eat, drink, and are merry. Meanwhile most places of business are shuttered, or open for quite limited hours.

Before I experienced the English holiday season for myself, this Christmas coma thing was hard to imagine. Our last Christmas in the U.S., Dave and I spent in Chicago, as we’d done for the most of our 10 years there. I went to a 2-hour yoga class on Christmas morning, and that yoga studio was packed. In the afternoon Dave and I walked through Millennium Park -- where the new skating rink was a veritable sea of flashing skate blades and puffy-coat-clad people, elbow to elbow, zipping by to the loudly piped-in tune of “Silver Bells.” When we reached the movie theater where we were headed, the lines were so long, we gave up and walked home again down the chock-a-block
Cloud Gate -- otherwise known as the Bean --
a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, in Chicago's Millennium Park

Last December, however – our first in England – a friend of Dave’s issued a warning upon hearing that we planned to spend the week of Christmas at home, in Durham. “Make sure you get to the grocery store before Christmas Eve,” he told Dave, “and get enough food to last through the week.”  

At first this sounded a bit melodramatic, like we were stocking up our supplies before a great blizzard, or a siege. But Christmas in England is not nearly so violent, nor dramatic – nor active as that.

In fact, it’s just very still. Very quiet.

The entire railway system shuts down on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and does not resume running until the morning of December 27. Here in Durham, the university library closes today -- December 22 -- and does not crack its doors again until January 3. That’s 11 days, y’all. My dry cleaner’s and my hair stylist’s are closed just as long. (11 days! I have to say it again.) And yoga classes during the latter half of December? The Christmas coma lasts even longer. There’s not a yoga class to be had in Durham for 2 solid weeks, from December 20 till January 3: a situation with the potential to incite panic in me.

Another feature of the UK holidays
which does not, in my opinion, get
enough international press:
the ubiquity of the Brussels sprout!
As U.S. American, I am used to things moving fast. I want what I want when I want it, and I expect to get it then, too. This need for speed manifests itself in my inner life as well. I think I should be doing more than I already am, or doing it faster, doing it better. Part of me loves this drive, this derring-do, which I associate with the American way of life. Part of me is bolstered -- even cheered -- by this love of movement, this border-line frenzy of action, that until lately I have considered my birthright.  

But part of me too, as I live in England and begin to appreciate a slightly different pace,  has learned to see the value in slowing down. By accepting slowness -- rather than pushing against it -- I may be making room for more grace. Grace for myself, grace for others.  

Last night, Dave and I were on a train home from London. We’d spent 4 days, walking an average of 10 miles a day (it’s how we see the sights), and while we had a lovely vacation, I was tired as we boarded the train. It being a few days before Christmas and the Great Railway Shut-down, the train was full to capacity, and then some. People stood in the vestibules and in the aisles. The overhead racks, jammed with boxes and shopping bags and suitcases, looked like train-sized replicas of a hoarder’s attic. The train was so crowded, neither the conductor nor the food cart ever made it into our car.  

Not ideal conditions, and to make matters worse, the train started out of Kings Cross Station 20 minutes late; it ran later and later as we headed north. By the time we reached Durham, our 3-hour train ride had been dragged out to 4 hours. I have rarely been so ready to get off a train. Dave and I walked to the vestibule early and loaded up with our backpacks and bags. We were in the car at the front of the train, just behind the engine, and we went to the exit at that far end; as the train entered the station, other people who planned to deboard with us in Durham (or “alight,” as they say here) clustered in that vestibule, too.

The Durham train viaduct

The exit doors should have opened once the train stopped, but they wouldn’t. I pushed the “open” button again and again. Nothing happened. I peered out the window to see if the other train exits were working -- if passengers on the other cars had deboarded -- but our car was so far at the front of the train, we’d stopped at one distant, dark end of the platform. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. Dave finally said, “We’ll have to turn around and go out by the other exit.”

By this point, 10 or so other people had crowded into the train vestibule just behind us; as a group, we had to pivot and traverse the whole length of the car, which was still quite full of people. Some of these people, once those of us deboarding in Durham had gotten up and walked to the exit, had gotten up also -- to change seats or to stand in the passageway, stretching their legs. They did not know what to think when all of us bag-laden, anxious-faced people turned around and tried to walk back the way we had come.   

My new home, with the cities of London,
Durham, and Newcastle
oh-so-artfully circled.
A few of the people still hoping to exit at Durham began to say very politely, “Can we get by?  Can you please let us through?”

But nobody did for awhile. They wouldn’t get out of our way. So it seemed to me, as I stood at the end of the line farthest away from the blockage. I heard scraps of discussion between the people still standing up in the aisle and the people at the front of my pack.   

“But I don’t want to get off quite yet,” an older woman said. I recognized her voice from having ridden across the aisle from her all afternoon. “My stop’s in Newcastle.”

My fellow trapped riders tried to explain. “Yes, yes, but our door wouldn’t open. We want to get off here, in Durham.”

But the woman remained in the passageway, struggling with a large suitcase she’d just had someone lift down from the luggage racks for her. She looked this way and that, up and down the thronged aisle, insisting that we weren’t yet in Newcastle. And still the dozen of us who wanted off of that train couldn’t move. It was like a new, British rendition of “Who’s on first?”

I said quite loudly, “Come on, come on! Just sit down!”

A few people in the Durham crowd with me – who, I can only assume, wanted her to sit down and let us pass just as badly as I did – said to me, “Shh, now. She’s just an old lady.”

And the train rolled forward again, a huge brainless beast that had no conception of us or our plight. We watched helplessly out the dark windows as the Durham train platform slid by us; the lights of Durham grew smaller and vanished beyond the black hills, and we had, all 10 or 12 of us, missed our stop. Onward to Newcastle, 15 minutes away, home of my new nemesis, the aisle-blocking, suitcase-dragging old lady.

There was nothing for it, as the British say, but to sit down again in the seats we had vacated minutes before and ride onward into the north. To remain on this damnable train. To wait around in Newcastle, tired and cold, once we’d reached it, for another train back to Durham. Going around your elbow to get to your ass, as they sometimes say where I come from.

Since it happened, I’ve been thinking quite steadily of those few minutes last night on the train. We all knew, by the time we failed to alight in Durham, that it would take an  hour at least to return. An hour’s delay, on top of the other hour by which our train was already delayed. I heard myself saying quite loudly, “We’d better not have to pay for the ride back here. It’s not our fault that we couldn’t get off when we wanted. I mean, if those doors weren’t going to open at the far end, they should have freaking announced it.”  

But no one else in our group of 12 was making much of a fuss. No one shouted or cursed. Nobody once raised their voice except me – and when I had, the other people who shared the predicament with me were willing to honor the old woman and her obvious confusion above their own imminent inconvenience. I heard one man, on his phone, explain to whomever he’d just missed meeting in Durham: “There was some sort of malfunction with the door. I’ll just turn right around in Newcastle. I’m sorry to make you wait.”

Such a mundane moment, such a dry exchange, and yet the very tone of his voice slowed my heart rate. He could not have sounded calmer or more at ease in this world than if he’d been lying on an inflatable raft in the middle of sunlit swimming pool. In the end, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that extra hour out of our way a pretty minor nuisance at best?

His response – and the response of the others who got stuck on that train with me – seems like a classic enactment of the British stiff upper lip. But it was also, I think, an act of compassion. Of patience. Of letting go of the need to control every minute -- or the need for speed, as it were.

A saying I’ve thrown around a lot in my life is that the “joy is in the journey.” Or, to quote Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.” And I do see the value in this worldview. But how much do I actually live by it? How much am I actually consumed by the need to arrive, to achieve? How often do I just want to get where I’m going, to have already learned what I need to know?

We are about to enter 2017, a year which in the UK will involve more political wrangling over how and when to implement Brexit, and which in the US will see the inauguration of a president whose style of governing (or not governing) -- from his Twitter feed to his cabinet picks -- clearly demands our action: our resistance, any form of constructive and nonviolent revolution that we can imagine. It is not a time for passiveness or acquiescence. There is much work for people of conscience to do. But as we do it, I want to think about how to cultivate an inner patience, an inner stillness.

Happy holidays, y'all!

I want to think about how to live without getting what I want, right when I want it. To learn how to live in the midst of chaos and noise and things that don’t work as I think they should work without screaming all of the time.

Not to hold still. Not to freeze, or give up. (Not, in fact, to go into a coma – Christmas-related or otherwise!) But to be alive, rather, to the process – to the one-foot-after-the-other quality of creating change. To accept slowness when it happens, as it will happen. To give grace to myself and to others.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Walking out of the Fold

I was 19 years old when I moved to Barcelona, 20 years old when I left. I still see the time that I spent in Spain as the most pivotal year of my life—the year that, more than anything else, determined the course I would take and the kind of person I’d be.  

Halfway through my year in Barcelona--at Parc Guell

The most life-changing year of them all—including the year I worked in Guatemala’s war zones; including the year I got cancer. This probably sounds strange at first, but during these other major events, I was in my late 20s and my mid 40s, respectively, and I think that made a huge difference. Then, I was much better equipped for a challenge than I’d been at 19—when I was, in retrospect, really a baby. By those later stages of life, I had pretty good emotional and psychological resources—thanks, in large part, to my year in Spain.

Climbing Grandfather Mountain, in North Carolina
Not all 19-year-olds are as young as I was. By young I mean unformed, untested, untried. I mean that, excepting my first year of college, I could not remember living anywhere else but in Hickory, North Carolina, a town of about 30,000. A town where, on clear days, you could see Grandfather Mountain at the eastern edge of the Smokies, and where I went through the local public school system with the same group of kids from kindergarten through our senior year. It was cozy; it was comforting; it was unassailably safe. Growing up, I felt central—maybe even essential—to that town, to that group of people.

Before I moved to Spain, the only other place I knew well was Harrisonburg, Virginia, where I’d spent my freshman year at Eastern Mennonite College (EMC). One state farther north and much fuller of Mennonites than my hometown, Harrisonburg was still quite a similar place: about the same size as Hickory, and comparably rural and Southern. At EMC, my first year, I felt a sense of belonging even more powerful than I had in Hickory. I am Mennonite by birth and upbringing; on both sides of my family tree, ever since our ancestors high-tailed it out of Europe following the Counter Reformation, we have been Mennonites. When I arrived in Harrisonburg at 18 and enrolled in its Mennonite college, I felt welcomed into the fold.
The EMC--now EMU--campus.

My EMC professors had taught my parents before me and still remembered them. They’d also taught my many uncles and aunts. They even told stories about them. (“Remember when your Uncle Doug hung that effigy off the water tower?” Well, no, I didn’t, but I’d heard about it.) Many people in Harrisonburg still remembered The Mennonite Hour, a groundbreaking (for Mennonites) radio program on which my grandfather had been the main speaker. At EMC, my new friends and I soon discovered that our parents had been friends before us—right here in these very same dorms, these same classrooms. When I began dating the guy I thought at 19 I would marry, it didn’t take long to find out that his father and mine had taken the same science classes together, 20-odd years before.

My grandfather, B. Charles Hostetter, on The Mennonite Hour
Wherever I looked, I saw connections between me and the people around me—connections that had been forged long before I ever arrived. It was so easy to take them for granted. At 19, I’d rarely met anyone who didn’t belong to my family, or to my church, or to the rural South. I didn’t know anyone well who was not a member of one of those groups, of my extended big cozy clans.

Hickory, North Carolina, and Harrisonburg, Virginia: How could I ever belong anywhere else as deeply as I did in these places that had gathered me in and held me so close as I grew up? Both in my hometown and at my new college, I felt my roots going down deep.

And how could moving to Spain at age 19 have been anything less than a transformation? How could it not have rocked me right down to the soles of my feet?

I had no idea what I was getting into, when I signed up to spend my sophomore year of college abroad. I didn’t have much choice in the matter—it was a requirement for my Spanish major—and right up till I left, I didn’t dwell on it much. But the last 24 hours at home, I became suddenly weepy. The morning my parents and my boyfriend and I drove to New York for my flight, I actually went and sat on my mother’s lap and cried. Walking through LaGuardia Airport to my gate of departure, I carried with me a huge stuffed animal—a long-armed plush monkey—which my boyfriend had given me for my birthday. Without a flicker of shame I carried that monkey onto the airplane and held it in my lap all the way across the Atlantic. What kind of first impression this made on the other American students flying with me to Spain for the year, I can only now shudderingly guess.

Until then, I’d never spent more than a few weeks away at a time from my family, or from my boyfriend. Suddenly, if I wanted to communicate with any of them, I was reduced to writing them letters—letters which took a week in their transit, coming and going—or to taking their precisely 10-minute-long phone calls every two weeks, at midnight (6 pm on the East Coast, which was when long-distance phone rates dropped lower).
La Pedrera, a building by Antoni Gaudi,
which I walked by on my way to school

Until then, I’d never spent more than one day at a time in a city, and the total of such days, before Barcelona, I could have counted, I think, on one hand. I’d never lived in an apartment. (Had I ever actually been inside one before?) I’d never ridden on public transportation, and for months the city metros—their labyrinthine dark tunnels, their crush of fast-moving people—were a daily nightmare to me. Though I’d studied Spanish in school for four years, I’d never had actual conversations in it—certainly not with a native speaker. (Those first months in Spain, every time I did talk to someone in Spanish—an hourly occurrence at least—some part of my brain kept monitoring the exchange from above: “Look at us, we’re speaking Spanish.”)

I’d never ridden a train—much less across national borders. Never had wine with lunch. (Never had wine before at all, really: Wasn’t I a good Mennonite girl? The first time I ever got drunk was with my Spanish host family, the day it was announced that Barcelona would be the site of the 1992 Olympics, and my host father opened champagne.)

Barcelona, seen from the hilltop of Montjuic
Nor had I ever known American students like the ones who were studying with me. Among them were kids of Jewish and South Asian descent; they’d never heard of Eastern Mennonite College. Their home institutions were Brown and Cornell and Princeton and UCLA. They were gorgeous. They were tall and skinny and brave. They put on do-rags and played their guitars at metro stations all over the city. They seemed to exude confidence. They strode around Barcelona in backpacks and black turtlenecks, chain-smoking and speaking Spanish—even Catalan!—at a machine-gun-fast clip. Back home, I had thought I was cool; I thought I was pretty smart. But within this new group of American students, I saw there was a whole different set of standards I’d hadn’t even known to imagine.

There’s a future book to be written about this, perhaps. For now I’ll just say that three decades after that year in Spain ended, I still see it as an enormous, jarring, harsh gift. Barcelona taught me to enjoy my own company, to be a world traveler and a world citizen. It taught me to read maps and to love cities, and to speak Spanish fluently. It's also the reason I didn't get married in my early 20s, as my then-boyfriend and I spoke of doing, before I left for Spain.

But if you’d seen me in Barcelona—if you’d tracked my behavior—during the first 6 or 7 months I lived there, you would hardly believe that any of this “gift” stuff is true. I was depressed. I was lonely. I dreamed of going home again, every day. I missed my boyfriend, my friends in high school and college. I missed my grandparents, my parents, my siblings. My youngest sisters, Cindy and Sandy, were only 8 years old when I left, and I loved them like they were my own. (I still think of them, somewhat, like that. The children who used up my maternal urges, when I was still very young.) For some reason I no longer recall, Cindy and Sandy both called me Pete, as a nickname. The summer before I left for Spain, Sandy in her pigtails and bare feet had plumped down one day in the yard and started bawling from out of the blue. When my mother went running to see what was the matter, Sandy gulped out, “I don’t want Pete to go to Spain!” Any time I reminded myself of this—sitting in my single-bed, brown-papered room in Barcelona, looking out on the elevator shaft—I’d burst into crying myself.

My family in Hickory, as we looked about 2 years before I left for Spain.

My longing for home—for what I’d left behind—almost stunted that year.

I’ve been thinking of this, as I read Annie Dillard’s beautiful memoir, An American Childhood, again; a whole chapter of it is dedicated to Dillard’s love of exploring her environs by foot, when she was a child. “I walked and memorized the neighborhood,” Dillard writes. “I made a mental map and located myself upon it. At night in bed I rehearsed the small world’s scheme and set challenges [for myself] . . . . I traveled over the known world’s edge, and the ground held” (42).

I, too, lay in bed as a child, running my mind’s eye over and over the network of roads that opened out from my house. I had the same maps in my mind as Dillard describes, but rather than thrilling, I found them terrifying. Dizzying. How strange that I could walk out the door of our house in Hickory, that front door as familiar to me it as my own skin, down the red-brick front steps and across the red-brick front porch where my dad or my grandma always planted red-and-white impatiens in summer, then out the one-lane wooded drive to Sandy Ridge Road . . . and from there, to more and more roads forking out, leading in all directions, to other towns, other states. If you walked or drove far enough, if you followed enough branching roads, one after the other, the world would look utterly different than the one you had left. You’d be so far removed from the place where you started you might never find your way back.

I started writing this post with the intention of thinking about our tendency, as humans, to fear difference. To shy away from the Other. To cling to ways of thinking and being that are deeply familiar to us. It’s a tendency that seems worthy of further reflection, here in this era after the 2016 U.S. elections.

Lest there be any doubt about the closeness of my family of origin:
Here we are in a bed that my sisters designed--and my brother built--
to hold all five of us siblings.
When I look back at my poor, sad, terrified 19-year-old self, I see why I was so terrified. To stop missing home so profoundly—to cease focusing on it in order to focus instead on the city around me, the people with whom I was living—meant that I’d have to change. If I let go of the past so as to embrace the present more fully, something in my way of thinking and seeing would shift. I didn’t know how, or how much exactly, but I had that subconscious fear. Accepting my new environs, letting myself become comfortable with them—from walking the streets of Barcelona alone to hanging out with the other kids in my study program to making friends with my Spanish neighbors, to buying my first all-black outfit—would mean a relinquishment, to some extent, of my previous life; a loosening of old connections. I’d have to stop seeing home—the Mennonite community, the American South: for me, those two had merged—as my primary identity. It would no longer be my single lens for seeing the rest of the world.

I did make this transition, by the end of the year. (When I flew home that summer, my stuffed monkey was ensconced in my suitcase, and that was all for the good.) The transition has stayed with me over the years; it has shaped my life ever since then, and I continue to be grateful for it. But at the same time, I understand too why I was reluctant—why it took me the first 2/3 of that year in Barcelona to give myself over to it. I must have sensed even then that expanding my world view would not come without a cost. In doing so, I’d never again feel quite as cozily included in one stable place, so much like a part of the clan, as I’d done the first 19 years of my life. In becoming at home in the world, I feared the rupture—the subtle but permanent break—with the world’s quiet and safe-feeling corners, with the communities I’d thought of as home.

Even Annie Dillard, that intrepid child explorer, ends her chapter on walking with the thrill of returning home after having walked away from it farther than ever: “What joy, what relief, eased me as I pushed open the heavy front door!—joy and relief because, from the very trackless waste, I had located home, family, and the dinner table once again” (44).

Thursday, 8 December 2016


“I sometimes think you can divide humans up based on who stays at home and who leaves,” my friend Catherine, a sociologist, said to me once. Ever since I was nineteen and left home for Spain, where I lived for a year, I’ve thought of myself as a person who leaves and keeps leaving. I’ve lived in Central America on three different occasions; I’ve lived in Atlanta, Chicago. Dave and I moved to Durham, England in 2015, and when people here ask me how long we plan to stay, I say, “Oh, indefinitely.” And this has felt right. We’ve been so happy here, pretty much since we got off the plane.  

Yet all along, in my living afar and abroad, my sense of home has been rooted in the American South. It’s been years since I lived there, but it’s still the place I’ve imagined returning to, eventually. I have an affinity for the southern Appalachian Mountains that goes deep down into my bones. And I loved growing up in Hickory, North Carolina—running wild in the forest and jumping off the Lake Hickory dam and canoeing back into the inlets. I loved going to St. Stephens High and running track and cross country with all of the boys, and driving around in my pea-green 1964 Ford Falcon with my girlfriends on a Saturday night. Though I lost my North Carolina accent a long time ago, hearing someone else speak with it still lifts my heart.

Downtown Hickory, North Carolina

But the recent U.S. elections have made me feel estranged from my home—from my country of origin, from the state where I grew up in—in a way I have not felt before. In the month since North Carolina and the U.S. went Red again, I’ve asked myself at least daily: How can that be my home? How can that be my country? Do I even want to belong there anymore?

So where, then, is home?

Is home where most of your history is—where your family and all the other people who’ve known you since childhood still live?

Or is it where you feel more politically and culturally comfortable? Where you can live at one remove, at least, from the madness that’s swallowed your land of birth? Britain has its share, too, of nasty politics and politicians—starting with Brexit and Nigel Farrar and Boris Johnson—but politics here do not get under my skin as thoroughly as they do when I read any recent news feed from the U.S. Because the U.K. isn’t really my culture—not yet, anyway—I don’t take politics as personally here. This too is a sign, perhaps, that I don’t really know where my home is.

These are thorny questions which I cannot answer in a blog post (or maybe ever), but something happened last week that threw such questions of mine into a different perspective. I’ve just begun, via Skype, to tutor a young man in English; he grew up in Syria but now lives in Eastern Europe. He has not told me much about his personal life, but the facts alone speak for themselves. He’s had to flee his home country. He cannot return—does not know when or if he’ll be able to, ever. After growing up in relative privilege, he’s now living as a refugee.

He and I were discussing first-language attrition: the process of losing fluency in your native language as you immerse yourself in another. That hasn’t happened to him, my new friend said. “But I do feel like a different person when I speak or English as opposed to when I speak or write Arabic.”

He went on to say that when he tries to write about “secondary political issues” in Arabic, he feels like he’s being pretentious. Like it’s silly—not the best use of his time—to put his focus on them. Secondary political issues? What did he mean? Oh, global warming, he said, women’s rights. I was taken aback; how could those be secondary issues?

“If I write about them in English,” he said, “it feels right. In English, those issues feel important, very much worth discussing. But in Arabic, the only thing I can write about—the only thing I think I should write about—is the war in my own country.”

#     #     #

There are so many ways to miss home.

Since Dave and I moved to England, I’ve been writing a novel, and when people ask me what it’s about, I often respond with an “elevator pitch,” as it’s called: a plot summary lasting only a sentence or two. No longer than an elevator ride.

Until lately, my elevator pitch has gone something like this: “My novel’s about the rivalry between two sets of girls, separated by social class in their small Kentucky high school, which erupts into violence the summer a movie star comes to town and seduces each one of them.

“Wow, that sounds pretty intense,” some people remark, and I say, “Yeah, and then one of those girls burns down the movie star’s hotel.”

For a while, I got a kick out of making my novel sound like a thriller. (It does have some elements of a thriller—starting, of course, with that sex-and-violence plot line.) But I’ve started to think that my elevator pitch needs reworking.

The last time I gave it to someone, he was wearing a tux and I a long dress; over these, we both wore long, black academic robes, as one does at Durham University when you dine formally at a college. What a college is in this context, I’ll have to save for a later post; for now let’s just say that dining at St. Chad’s College of Durham, at the high table—yes, that’s really what it’s called—made me feel like I’d fallen into a Merchant-Ivory film. Except for the big drapey sleeves of my robe occasionally getting caught in my food, this was all quite gratifying, in an Anglophile sort of way, until the young man beside me asked what my novel’s about.

St. Chad's College at Durham University
When I gave him my regular elevator pitch, he blinked rapidly several times. Then he said, very politely, “Well, perhaps you can use a pen name.”

I was as startled by his reaction as he must have been to my plot summary, though in true British form we both smiled and nodded and moved on to a different topic.

My dinner companion got me thinking, though. My novel isn’t as sleazy as I’ve been making it sound. You can’t write 300 pages about nothing but sex and violence—or I can’t, anyway. But looking back over the past 18 months in which I’ve been writing this novel, I see how my elevator pitch came to focus on its melodramatic aspects alone.

This novel started out as a short story, just 20 pages or so. In an early revision, it grew from 20 pages to 40; then from 40 to 60—at which point I had to start calling the thing a novella.[i] That draft, I buried deep in a desk drawer and didn’t look at for four solid months. When I unearthed it again and reacquainted myself with the characters and their problems, I found to my surprise I still had more to say. The next draft reached 200 pages; I finished it this past June. The draft that I’ll finish by Christmas—please God—tops out at 300 pages.

As an elevator pitch for the original 20-page story, my sex-and-violence summary works pretty well. But that story has grown exponentially in size. My characters’ psychology is deeper, more nuanced; their setting, too, has become more important, shaping their desires and frustrations. Bit by bit, over the past year of rewriting, the elevator pitch I’ve been using no longer does justice to the whole story. My story—as it’s evolved into a novel—is really about an artist’s relationship to her rural, Southern hometown.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. It wasn’t clear to me till this summer, when I got into that 200-page draft. Out of the five high school girls I thought the novel would focus on equally, one girl began to emerge. She became the character I was most eager to follow, the voice I most wanted or needed to hear. Jewel—that’s the character’s name—turned out to be my protagonist; her struggle in adolescence is how to get out of her small, isolated hometown, where her artistic ambitions stamp her as different, at best. But when she does get a scholarship to art school—when she leaves her town and her mother and classmates to move to the city—Jewel finds she is deeply homesick: 
Homesick for the house I grew up in, and for its long summertime smell, the smell of damp earth and bright moss, pungent and clear as the end of a thunderstorm. Homesick for summers that poured on and on, a ridiculous wealth of hot days, when all the front yards by August had turned brown and sere, and on Main Street you could walk barefoot in and out of the stores. Homesick for those mountains that encircled our growing up: Guthrie’s Mountain beneath and behind us, Blue Mountain just west and north; and facing us over the river, the steep escarpment of Killiwack Knob.

It’s self-indulgent—forgive me—to quote from your own (unfinished, unpublished) novel. But as I’ve probed farther into Jewel’s divided life, into her feeling torn between home and the rest of the world, I’ve come to see that I’m really writing—surprise, surprise—about my own lifelong struggle. A struggle that's come into sharper focus since the recent U.S. elections.

There are so many ways to miss home.

[i] Story, novella, novel, what’s the difference? In simplest terms, it’s about length—the length of a work of fiction. A story can be as long, typically, as 15,000 words. Much beyond that, and it’s become a novella. Novellas, which fill that strange space between stories and novels, are usually 15,000 to 40,000 words long. A novel, then—you guessed it—is a work of fiction that’s longer than that.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

On Living with Anger, Part 2

How do I live with this anger? How do I make my own peace with it? In my last post, I raised these questions without answering them. Nor did I finish the story about that “Praise the Lord for Donald Trump!” Facebook post, which made me so angry, it gave me flashbacks to the last time I felt rage take over my life and made me fearful about how I’ll handle the coming four years.

That morning, I stood up from my computer with my heart clenched tight as a fist. It was only a day or two after the U.S. elections, and I’d moved through the mind-numbing shock and denial of the first 24 hours into pure, inflammable fury. The least thing could have set me off. That morning, it was the “Praise the Lord!” post. I wanted to scream at the writer.

But I was running late to my meditation session, so I flung out of the house on my way to the gym where I meditate twice a week with my friend and fabulous yoga teacher, Jessi Komes. I was so angry on my walk over, I could hardly see where I was going. Even as I joined the session—as I unrolled my mat and sat down, as I tried to concentrate on Jessi's opening words—my chest was constricted with anger. What a great irony, right? Trying to meditate—trying to let go of the self, to achieve oneness with everyone and all around me—while being so angry at the “Praise the Lord” commentator, I could've slapped her if she had been standing there.

Generally, I love meditation.

It reminds me of one of the mental spaces I get into as part of my writing process. I don’t mean sitting at the computer or in front of my open journal, putting words on the screen or the page. I mean the stage just before that, when you’re dreaming it up—when you let your mind open and open. Sometimes you go broadly, attentively blank; sometimes you free-associate wildly, but it’s always with a sense of energy—creative energy—rippling around you and through you. You feel more translucent or permeable, somehow, as if the spirit world and the physical world start to intermix. The novelist Ann Patchett has described her own pre-writing process in much the same way.[1] She was initially hesitant to marry her husband, says Patchett, because she didn’t want anyone seeing how she spent part of each day: sitting around the house with her eyes glazed and her mouth half open. That is what the pre-writing process is like. It looks like you’re doing nothing.

Meditation, I think, is a more dignified-looking form of this practice—and, in the sessions I go to, has the added benefit of being guided. I like having someone to help direct my thoughts. From week to week, Jessi leads us in a variety of meditations. Sometimes it’s a full body scan: Feel each toe, feel the top of your foot, feel the sole of your foot, feel your ankle. Sometimes it’s more image-related: Imagine a mountain, imagine yourself as the mountain. If you’ve done meditation yourself, you probably recognize these—and know I’m greatly condensing. But meditation, I find, regardless of the form each session takes, is an act of deep concentration, an almost holy awareness.

The morning of the “Praise the Lord” post, however, I hardly heard Jessi at all. For the first ten minutes of that half-hour session, my mind was a solid black cloud. Then Jessi led us into what I recognized right away as a form of the Compassion meditation.

You begin the Compassion Meditation by trying to picture yourself. It's strange to do, but you try. Keeping the image of your own face in mind, you direct these words to yourself: "May I be well. May I be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May I be loved."

You then call to mind someone dear to your heart. You hold his or her face in your thoughts, being aware of the positive feelings it gives you think about or "look at" this person. You say to this loved one: "May you be well. May you be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May you be loved."

You repeat this practice twice more: with a person you feel neutral about, someone you may not know well but whom you see regularly: a bus driver, a grocery store clerk; lastly, you imagine a person with whom you have conflict. You notice how different it feels to say the Compassion mantra to these different people. As a final step of this meditation, you imagine all four of you—yourself, your beloved, your neighbor, the person with whom you have conflict—standing together in a circle. And you say to them all, “May we be well. May we be peaceful, at ease, and free from suffering. May we be loved.”

Beautiful, right? I’ve been in rooms where a dozen people did the Compassion meditation together, and half of us were brushing away tears by the end.
See? He has a Buddha smile.

That morning, Jessi began the Compassion meditation by asking us to imagine a baby we loved. This was easy. My sister Sandy’s new baby, Tavi, was much on my mind and my heart. He was born November 9, the day after the U.S. elections. What a world to wake up to! And yet in his very first photos, Tavi looked so deeply content. While Tavi’s blissed-out expressions largely means that he’s well fed and well rested—and blessedly ignorant of  U.S. politics—I like imagining his face. Looking at pictures of him does me good. And Tavi’s face brought me out of myself, during that meditation. It slipped me free of my anger, at least for the moment. Tavi’s face: I could picture that, in my mind’s eye. I felt my concentration gather around  it.

I thought Jessi would continue from there into the next stages of the Compassion mediation as I already knew it. But instead, she suggested, “Now imagine your own self as a baby.” This may be hard to do, she acknowledged; when you were a baby, you never knew what you looked like. You never thought about it. “But think of photos of yourself as a baby,” said Jessi. “Think of how someone who loved you as a baby must have been seeing you then.”

Into my mind came those black-and-white, squiggly-edged photos, three inches square, that were popular in the late 60s. I’ve seen photos like that in my parents’ big family album, photos of me with rolls of baby fat on my bare arms and legs and dark, staticky hair that stood  straight up on my head. I thought of my mother and father—so young when I was born! Were they really just 25 and 30? I thought of them living in Charlottesville, Virginia, my dad just graduating from medical school and my mom working in public health. I pictured my dad in his Mad Men black plastic-framed glasses, my mom with her hair in a bun and her skirt cut sexily over her knees. I was their first child, named after my aunt. I was wanted. I know that I was—that I am—deeply loved.

Well, let’s be honest. Just writing this now has brought tears to my eyes. I think I’m an easy crier. But that morning last month, as I sat on my mat and moved out of my anger into these deep memories, I started to weep. I wept right on through the following three steps of that meditation:

  • Imagine yourself as an elementary school child. Imagine who loved you. Imagine what you wanted then, what your dreams were. Your hopes. Remember what you cared about.  
  • My elementary school-aged self. (Third grade.)
  • Imagine yourself as a teenager now. You’re moving out into the world. You’re seeing more of what people can be. What did you want then? What did you hope? What was hard for you, and who helped you through it? Remember who was around you. Remember how you were loved.
  • Imagine yourself as you became an adult. By this stage in life, most of us have encountered some difficulty, some pain. We start to see ourselves as part of the world. Think of yourself in that moment when you knew you’d grown up. What made you happy? What did you fear? How did you know you were loved?
My young-adult self, with my Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter.
I saw my parents, my sisters, my brother, my aunts and my uncles. I saw my Hostetter grandparents. I saw my Brackbill great-grandparents. I saw my house in Hickory, North Carolina and the quiet green lake behind it. I saw my dad’s garden and the Smoky Mountains on the horizon. I saw my best friend in elementary school, who made clubhouses with me in the woods and swam in Lake Hickory with me every day in the summer. I saw my girlfriends in public high school and my favorite high school English teacher, who was also my cross country coach. Further and further into my life, I saw the people who’d surrounded me, helped me, encouraged me, loved me. I felt so overwhelmed by gratitude that if I hadn’t been in a room full of people just then, I would have sat there and bawled my head off. Instead I sniffled through the end of the session with my tears running into my collar.

That sense of love and gratitude that filled me up did knock my anger right out of my chest. It made me feel newly empowered. It made me remember who I am, that I am a doer, that I am strong, that I do not give in easily. It also made me remember how much of life I actually love, how much of life is worth celebrating. Even in calamitous circumstances, it can’t all be misery and rage and righteous indignation, 24/7. Or maybe it can, but I don’t want to live in that way.

Anger can be a sign that all is not right in this world, and you’re aware—you are acknowledging this. You’re so aware, you want to act, to stand up to the source of your outrage. My childhood heroes were people who did this: who stood against oppression and lived out their beliefs, regardless of danger. Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid Jewish people in their house during Hitler’s occupation of Holland; my aunt Pat and my uncles Earl and Doug, in the late 60s, went to live in the occupied villages and refugee camps of Vietnam, in a stance against the U.S.’s involvement there. Among the heroes of my adulthood are the members of The White Rose and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

My uncle, Doug Hostetter, in Tam Ky, Vietnam, 1969.
For all of these people, I think, their actions were driven by outrage, by a sense that the world they lived in had taken a turn for the worse—a turn they could not tolerate.

At the same time, their acts of resistance lasted for years of their lives. They could not have been angry all of the time. They could not have been bitter or panicked every minute of the day. Yes, their anger was the source of their action, but it had to be leavened, too.

Anger alone—anger unleavened—can be draining. And if we are drained, we are unable to act, to resist as fully and vibrantly as we can. This is inevitable, I think, if anger lasts too long, or if is not balanced with action, with hope, with compassion and with self-compassion.

So here’s my answer, in part, to the question, How do I live with this anger?

I acknowledge the anger. I won’t try to suppress or ignore it. I won’t bury my head in the sand. I’ll do whatever I can do to support the causes of mercy and justice and peace.

But even as I live with this anger, I will actively take care of my soul. I will surround myself with people who bring joy and light into my life; I will focus my action as much as I can on practices that empower. Less manic reading of Facebook or the MSBN newsfeed. Less silent trashing of people whose views radically differ from mine. More yoga, more meditation, more writing, more blogging. More phone calls to family and friends. More walks on the moors, more stopping to watch the brilliant cold sunsets of winter in the far north.
The view, yesterday afternoon, out my office window.

And meanwhile, I take courage from what my uncle, Doug Hostetter—the same Uncle Doug who went to teach high school in Vietnam during the height of the war—wrote to me recently, in light of the U.S. elections:

“I do believe that living for three years in a war zone led me to realize that there are always positive things than can be done, even in the most dire circumstances, if one keeps centered and keeps your eyes open for where the spirit is leading, or where there may be openings for using the power of love and truth.”

[1] In her 2006 Sarah Lawrence College commencement speech, “What Now?”