My Bearings

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The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

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When the Words Breathe

A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.

 

Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.