A Special Calling

Literature takes many forms, and feeds the reader in a wide variety of ways. But there is one category, I feel, that rises above the rest. Not because it’s “better,” but because the stories are written for the most impressionable and important of audiences — kids.

Those who choose to write for kids feel a special calling. On July 16 a new class of committed wordsmiths  —  the Revisionaries — graduated from the Master of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their last residency was online instead of on campus in lovely Montpelier, but the accomplishment is not virtual, it’s real. Through countless hours of hard work, they have earned the right to call themselves writers. Overflowing congratulations to:

Erin Becker, Renee Burke, Lily Choi, Rachel Feld-Reichner, Rachel Gambiza, Elizabeth Hooks, Robin Korb, Emma Kress, Jesaka Long, Debra Markee, Karla Moyer, Fran Nadel, Erin McArthur Nuttall, Denny Partridge, Maud Macrory Powell, Kessa Shipley, Anne-Marie Strohman, Erin Calabio Summerill, Amanda Vacharat, Lakita Wilson, Elisa Zied.

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Making Meaning

Leslie Nielsen said, “Doing nothing is very hard to do . . . you never know when you’re finished.” Which I find funny, at least on a surface level.

It’s also disturbing. I grew up believing that doing nothing is a cop-out, that it’s important to to be “productive,” to “contribute” in some way. And I still hold that to be true.

In the midst of the current chaos, though, the definitions of “productive” and “contribute” have gotten harder to pin down. Sure, I’ll keep writing, keep trying to weave stories that at least offer a bit of distraction, entertainment, maybe even stimulate a moment or two of reflection in readers. But what else do I do to earn my keep?

How about you? How are you creating meaning in your life these days?

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The Space Between Things

A crow perches in the maple tree outside my second-story office window.  It has a twig in its beak. A scrub jay lands nearby, eyeing the twig. The crow hops toward the jay, flapping its wings aggressively. The jay, outsized and outgunned, squawks and flies away. The crow, victorious, caws three times, then launches into the air and sails across the street, over the top of a house, and disappears into the deep green arms of a large Douglas fir.

This short battle is waged over a thing — a twig, most likely for building another thing, a nest. But what strikes me in this moment is how much we focus on things, as if they are everything, and how little attention we pay to the space between things, despite the fact that space is the majority of what fills our field of vision.

Case in point — looking around my office, I see lots of things: desk, computer, keyboard, chair, bookshelves, index cards, a jar of pens, piles of printed manuscript, a red and yellow scarf knitted for me by a friend. These things have utility and meaning, and so I focus on them, value them.

But when I get out the measuring tape and calculate the cubic footage those things fill, it only totals 123. My office is 1,184 cubic feet in volume. Space outnumbers things by a ratio of nearly 9 to 1.

I go outside and try to measure the thing-to-space ratio of my backyard. It’s fruitless, of course. Things are fewer and farther between, and space goes up and on forever.

How odd, then that we love things so much. We collect things. We crave things. We fill our life with things. We are willing to fight, even die for things. And yet our lives literally depend on the space between those things. It is filled with what we call air, and within that air is oxygen. Which, of course, is essential. And no matter how hard we try to contain it, to call it ours, it just laughs, swirls into a breeze, and moves on — across borders, around the world. It is shared.

Back upstairs in my office, I see that the crow is again perched in the maple outside my window. It has another twig in its beak.

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The Science of Well-Being

Writing fiction is grounded in exploring the complexities of the story’s characters — their wants, underlying needs, how their minds work, and the resulting behaviors. In that vein, I recommend the excellent online class that’s being offered through Yale University: The Science of Well-Being, taught by Professor Laurie Santos.

The course can be taken for credit for a small fee, or audited at no charge. (That’s right, your balance will be $0.00. What a deal!) It is accessible any time, and you are free to go through it at your own pace. If you don’t want to invest time in all of the readings and assignments, the video recordings alone of her lectures are outstanding. Laurie Santos is warm, funny, and super knowledgable. Learn more about what makes your characters tick, and in the process — if you’re like me — gain insight into your own mind as well. So worth the time!

Laurie Santos

https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

A Letter from your friend, Covid-19

Dear Potential Victims —

No, sorry, too abrupt. Let me try again:

Dear Conducive Bodies

Um, that’s not it, either. Although accurate, it’s too clinical. This is challenging. Hmm . . . Oh, I know! Dear Lovely Humans! Yes, that’s it — not too hot, not too cold, juuuust right.

Dear Lovely Humans,

I know that some of you have steadfastly downplayed me and my impact, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your denial. You went to the beach and got drunk and said really intelligent things like, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” Fantastic. So right on. I was there on the beach with you, by the way. I didn’t let anything stop me from partying, either. And then I made the trek home with you, and expanded my range exponentially. Fun!

Also, a big shoutout to the young adults in Kentucky who ignored the state’s guidance on social distancing. You thought you were invincible and got together to prove it. I am so impressed that you were defiant, and flattered that you actually named your party in my honor. Thank you so much for the invitation! As you now know due to subsequent diagnoses, I was there too, spreading the love. That’s what I do — spread.

This not to say that only the young have done their part. There are many middle-aged folks and elders who have generously taken steps to welcome me with open arms. My hat is off to you. (Figuratively speaking of course; viruses don’t have heads, much less hat to put on them. Although if we did, we could really get ahead in the world. Ha! Get it? My very first pun. Funny funny me. I hope it goes viral!)

All humor aside, it grieves me that despite the hospitality shown to me by many, way too many of you lovely humans are not so welcoming. How dare you slam the door in my face, bleach me out of existence, wash me down your drains. Did no one teach you manners? Sheesh!

Still, I’m encouraged by how often even you, despite your failings, are still willing to gamble a bit. Forget roulette or Texas Hold-em or Blackjack. You don’t play the odds at a casino. No, instead you take your chances by playing YES-BUT.

It’s a simple game, and anyone can play. The key thing to remember is the Rule of Rationalization. It goes like this: YES, I understand that this pandemic is serious, BUT just this once it won’t hurt to hug my buddy whom I haven’t seen in weeks. YES, I get it that diligence is crucial, BUT what harm will one little fist bump do? YES, I saw the sign at the trailhead that urged 6-foot distancing even in the outdoors, BUT it was breezy and that panicky guy was way overreacting when I got close and that’s why I rolled my eyes. YES, I understand that scientists are recommending I sanitize things that come into my house and wash my hands a lot, BUT that’s just too much trouble; really, what are the odds? This gives me hope that YES-BUT will soon turn you into more persistent gamblers. Really put your mind to it, and you may even get to say “deal me in” to the ultimate, mega-stakes game of chance. It’s played in the hospital, and is called HIGH CARD. You draw from a deck to see who wins access to the last ventilator. Fun, right? Woo-hoo! Go for it!

A final plea to those of you who are doing everything in your power to follow guidelines and mandates, and have no interest in playing YES-BUT, or taking any chances at all — please reconsider. It’s not too late to loosen up and break the boredom of self-isolation. Live a little! It won’t kill you!

Okay, well, it might. But remember, it’s a noble sacrifice — you suffer so that I can live, and continue to answer the call of the biological imperative to reproduce. Also, and this is the really cool part, it gives me more time to mutate. Hopefully I’ll soon be developing a strain that will allow me to establish a personal connection on a cellular level with every single one of you. Yay!

Hugs and kisses, your friend,

Covi

P.S. Not only can I hack lovely human bodies, I can also hack into computers. I haven’t found a path into Tom Birdseye’s body yet, but I did ferret my way into his laptop, ergo this note to all of you. Please share and help it go viral. Thank you!

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This is a Test

A woman in our local supermarket verbally scorches the deli worker for not putting on a new pair of latex gloves before touching her groceries.

Passengers on a flight from Colorado to New Jersey become disruptive because a man is coughing and sneezing. The flight has to be diverted. The man is tested. He has allergies.

A New York teen screams at a man of Asian descent — “F— you, Chinese coronavirus!” — kicks him to the ground, tells him to go back where he came from. The victim has lived in the U.S. for 35 years.

Unfortunately, in times of high anxiety the ugly side of human nature often surfaces. Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” are shoved aside, and fear of the unknown and unseeable morphs into hostility that is unleashed on the innocent. There is an irrational assumption behind the wheel, driving the violence — that lashing out will somehow make things better. It doesn’t, of course; instead it makes things worse.

But as Lynn Ungar argues in her beautiful and powerful poem, “Pandemic,” there is another way to respond to the uncertainty and fear we are now facing. If you haven’t read it yet, here tis. Digest it slowly. Let it sink in bone deep. And when your “body has become still, reach out with your heart.” Add your voice to the “tendrils of compassion.” Who are we? How do we cope? This is a test.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

 

Beats the Alternative

In these contentious times, it’s easy to slide into focusing on what’s wrong with the world instead of what’s right with it, what’s missing rather than what’s present, the hurt others inflict while ignoring their capacity for compassion. So much seems to ride on perspective, which is fueled by attitude, which is shaped by awareness. I have to keep reminding myself to get to know someone on a personal level, hear their stories, see how they walk through their day, before asking about their political or religious leanings.

Easy to say, a challenge to do, especially in these times of binary thinking. The culture at large keeps channeling us toward judgement, which may feel satisfying on one level — superiority is an addictive emotion — but ultimately eats away at our souls.

I fail regularly, of course, in my drive to stay unequivocally openminded. But if I have one characteristic that sustains me, it’s persistence. Day after day it brings me back to the keyboard to write, and to my work-in-progress life — another form of revision. I keep on keeping on. Because, after all, what’s the alternative?

As Ron Padgett says in his poem, Excerpts from “How to be Perfect”: “Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even older. Which is depressing.”

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In the Same Breath

Valentine’s Day has come and gone. For many it was filled with joy and gratitude, and celebrations of love (which often include chocolate). But for others it was a holiday they are all too glad to have in the rearview mirror, as it was just another reminder of an empty space, loss, and grief. How we perceive is governed by the lens through which we view, which in turn is forged by personal history.

For me Valentine’s Day is both. I am extremely fortunate to be in a relationship that has lasted over 46 years and is getting stronger all the time, so yesterday was filled with joy and celebration (and yes, chocolate). But February 14th is also the anniversary of my dad’s death, and so it is tinged with loss and sorrow. Polar opposite emotions, both in the same breath.

As a writer, I want to remember that what seems paradoxical in life often isn’t, and try to create characters that are complex and authentic.

As a human being, I want to honor that complexity in everyone, no matter who they are or what their personal history may be. It’s a Valentine’s gift of compassion I can give any day of the year.

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A Tree is Not a Forest

From Peter Wohlleben, forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees:

“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”

Maybe we, as a species, can learn something from the plant kingdom?

Maybe we, as writers, can make a special point to nurture one another. We each grow taller when we all grow together.

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