Writers Read: How the Body Works the Dark by Derrick C. Brown

Dearest Soon,
I think I may be in love with you, Soon.

The opening lines of Derrick C. Brown’s latest collection of love poems, How the Body Works the Dark, reveal the heart of his poetry in a sincere, simple declaration. Brown writes about love the way all poets should. His understated tone, diction, and sense of humor construct a modern collection of love poetry that feels sincere and fresh.

Simple, declarative sentences like, “You kiss me like Hell is real” (“Mercy Sleeps”), and, “We kissed so hard / I could see how she was going to die” (“More”) are a mainstay of Brown’s voice. These electric one-liners are reminiscent of his earlier work. Brown’s the guy who said, “I am your blood,”  and, “Stop ruining love by wanting it so badly” (“Kurosawa Champagne”). The latter line, made infamous by text graphics on Tumblr, has been shared so rampantly that “memes” sometimes fail to attribute the quote to him. To me, this is just one example of the demand for poets like Brown.

How I am nourished
by the night chaos
in your skin.

The service that overcomes me
when your legs ache.  (“Soon”)

With frequent references to blood and body parts, there’s no question Brown is a poet of the body, a distinctly American characteristic he shares with poets like Whitman, Cummings, and Olds. Writing about the human body naturally raises questions of soul-body connection, individuality, and the human condition. For Brown, exploration of the physical body, its beauty and weakness, seems linked inextricably to its ability to influence relationships. “I ain’t trying to turn anyone on,” Brown quotes himself in the epigraph of his book, “I am trying to crack this fat skull and get her light out of my head.” The physical body is the centerpiece of the collection not to turn you on, but because it’s the vehicle to emotional intimacy.

Derrick C. Brown

The book is divided into two parts: “A Chosen Love” explores perceived intimacy when one falls in love, while “A Chosen Darkness” describes its unraveling and the conflict that ensues—unpredictable, sometimes ugly, and, God knows, realistic. Brown’s imagery summons forces of nature to represent both the ethereal and destructive parts of love. In “My Queen of Monster Lake,” he represents the speaker’s beloved as a dangerous force of nature—“Our love / is a lake full of lightning”—a conceit which is frequently referred to throughout the collection.

I want four days at Avila beach with you
until the breath-sucking sunset
is finally made common and we no longer
devour each others madness, we just lay around, staring. (“Mercy Sleeps”)

Though Brown’s work has been described as “true grit Americana,” with poems set against backdrops of rural Texas and Tennessee, the setting for the collection is clearly California, with references to Big Sur, the Felton Redwoods, and Santa Cruz Island.

The relatable and heartbreaking poem “Añejo” is set at a “Tequila bar on Sunset.” In this urban Los Angeles setting, nature is depicted as a (potentially fabricated) symbol for conflict, which presents itself at the moment of a breakup:

Outside it looked as if all the wind machines turned on
simultaneously, throughout Los Angeles back lots.

Brown, who is also a comedian, interjects his poetry with humor—probably because he can’t help it. In “Beyond Here,” he writes, “You are thinking of your last meal / and I am thinking of you covered in barbacoa.”

Brown’s sixth full-length book of poetry, How the Body Works the Dark presents a realistic, relatable portrait of love, its beauty and destruction.

 

Brown, Derrick C. How the Body Works the Dark. Not A Cult P, 2017.
—. “Kurosawa Champagne.” Scandalabra. Write Bloody Publishing, 2009.

 

Jessica Abughattas has poems recently published in Thrush Poetry Journal, Stirring Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket, and a reader at Frontier Poetry. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicamelia22

Reaching Out for Incarcerated Voices

When you walk in the doors of a prison, you can’t help but be reminded that in order to leave, someone has to let you out. You are reminded by the big thick doors. You are reminded by the double paned glass. You are reminded by the tall gates outside. You’ve left everything in your car but your keys and your ID. You have to sign in and go through a metal detector.

I’ve been to a number of prisons and detention centers for youth, having spent many years working with foster youth who were in and out of juvenile detention. I’ve picked up kids who were being released from detention, gone to visit them while in detention numerous times, and testified in court to try to get them out. I’ve never become used to it; incarceration is one of the most unnatural states that exist.

The staff of Lunch Ticket recently had a conversation about how we, as the journal of a school with a social justice mission, could feature a more diverse group of voices. When the idea of doing outreach to incarcerated populations came up, I volunteered. I think any opportunity for incarcerated individuals to tell their stories gives us all a little bit of hope. Hope that they will be seen as people. Hope that writing, and being published, will give them new ideas about their futures. Hope that our country will someday shift from being a leader in mass incarceration to being the leader of freedom and free peoples.

On behalf of Lunch Ticket, I visited a maximum/medium security facility for young men about forty minutes from my house. To be there, young adults must either have committed a large number of minor offenses or one major offense: a range from petty theft to large-scale drug sales and assault. Out in the country, the facility has a rural feel to it. There are wide expanses of grassy green fields within the high gates. The facility is called a school, a name that implies something softer than prison; but the gates, the security, the metal detector, and building do not. They disrupt the illusion.

*     *     *

I went to the facility with a program called Gateways for Incarcerated Youth, which is run out of the Evergreen State College. The Gateways Program Coordinator, Talib, agreed to be my host, and to facilitate any writing or art submissions that the youth may decide to submit to Lunch Ticket.

I sat down with about ten young men, Talib, and a couple volunteers. The first thing I noticed was Talib walking around to each of the young men to shake their hands. He looked them in the eye in greeting. The second thing I noticed was that most of the incarcerated youth were people of color, and aside from Talib, all of the people in power were white.

The room looked like a school cafeteria, with posters on the wall and long tables with plastic chairs. A white man sat behind us at a large elevated desk. I could see a young man being escorted by a guard outside. Most of the youth sat, but one stood and braided another’s hair while we talked. They were all casual, chatty, and engaged.

We introduced ourselves, talked about how our weeks had been, and said what our favorite things about summer were, which included the weather, summer carnivals and fair food, water parks, and hanging out with friends. They were at once dreaming of summer activities before incarceration, and about what they might do when they got out. Talib explained my reason for being there, and I talked about the different kinds of work they could submit to Lunch Ticket. I talked about CNF, fiction, flash fiction, writing for young people, and art. I told them I thought they were in a great position to write: the fact of where they live means they have stories to tell that other people could learn and benefit from. They could open up readers’ eyes to an experience that so many people cannot even imagine. I told them that there were nonfiction writers in the world who wrote memoirs about lives that didn’t interest me at all, but that their lives did.

I asked if it was okay with them that I write a blog about my visit, because maybe that would mean someone else would read it and want to do the same thing I did. I could see in their faces that they liked that idea—they lit up, nodded, and smiled at me—but just a little. One young man didn’t smile when he nodded. He looked like he was thinking, yeah that’d be nice. It reminded me of my first conversation with Talib, when I’d said that I hoped they would respond positively to my visit, and Talib had replied that they respond positively to everyone who takes an interest in them.

When it was time for questions, they had some for me. They asked why the journal was only online, if they were allowed to submit more than one piece, and if they didn’t get accepted for this issue, if they could try again for the next one. They asked if their names would be on their piece if it were to be published. They asked me to explain flash fiction. They asked if I would bring in a printed copy of the journal, because they don’t have access to the internet.

Talib had talked to them the week before to prepare them for my visit, and they’d told him they were worried that they didn’t have anything to write about. He’d responded that he knew they did, and then they’d talked about not letting the place they were in crush their creative spirit. Because it does that. To help them with inspiration, he brought a movie with him about Nelson Mandela called Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He asked them to produce something creative—anything—in response to the film. They may use their work to submit to Lunch Ticket or not, but this was their task for the week as part of their program.

When it was time for me to leave, they thanked me for coming. I told them I was available to answer any questions about their writing, or to help them with it, or to answer questions about Lunch Ticket. I explained that I work for the government as my day job, and that I needed to take vacation time to come see them, but that if they wanted me to come back because they were interested in writing, I absolutely would.

I waved to them as I walked out, and their expressions were so positive. They looked like they had light in their eyes. They said they were going to submit their work. I don’t know how they felt, but I walked away with hope. I had hope even as I returned my visitor’s badge to the man behind several plates of glass. I had hope even as I waited for the door to open for me, and then for the gate to open for me. I had hope as I drove away, past the tall gates and the large green fields, and headed back onto the freeway for home.

*     *     *

The school’s population is overwhelmingly youth of color. I thought about this when I was recently pulled over by a police officer who was all about order. As a middle aged white woman, I am used to authorities speaking to me with a certain amount of respect, especially since I live in a small community where many of us know each other. But this officer demanded to see my license before he would tell me why he had stopped me; he asked me to be honest and tell him if there were any warrants for my arrest or if I had a firearm in my car.

I haven’t been asked questions like that in maybe twenty years, and I was taken aback. I had flashes of anxiety as he talked to me, and as I pulled my wallet out of my bag. I reminded myself that nothing bad was going to happen to me. I knew that because I have privilege, and resources, and security. And so I did not give him my license until he told me why he’d pulled me over. And he did, begrudgingly. His tone changed once he confirmed that my license was clear and that my paperwork lined up. He decided I was safe: a middle class, middle aged white woman who he could cheerfully and patronizingly lecture to about remembering that my birthday meant it was time to renew my car registration, that I should give myself car tabs for my birthday. I tried not to roll my eyes, only because I didn’t want him to give me another ticket for not having my most recent insurance paper. I reached into my bag to get my lip balm while he talked, without warning him ahead of time. He didn’t ask what I was getting. My hands started to shake a little when I thought about what could’ve happened to me had I done that if I were a person of color.

Minor offenses pile up easily. Once you are in the system there are eyes on you, and it’s easy to get picked up again and again. Today I am forty three years old. Twenty five years ago I was a pot smoking school ditching teenager. I never got involved with the system because I’m white, I have educated parents, and come from a safe neighborhood. I was safe.

Former Washington State marijuana activist Dominic Holden wrote in The Stranger in 2012 about one of the saddest lessons of his political life. He was running a struggling campaign to decriminalize marijuana based on what he saw as a great injustice: that white people used marijuana at a higher rate than people of color, but that people of color were arrested for possession in much higher numbers. Holden and some fellow organizers went to Blair Butterworth, the late Seattle political consultant, for advice on how to proceed. Butterworth told them that if they wanted to win, they should stop talking about race and stick to this message: “I-75 frees our police and prosecutors from enforcing marijuana laws so they can concentrate on protecting our communities from serious and violent crime.” It worked. The law passed, making pot the “lowest ‘priority'” for police, and arrests started declining. Marijuana is now legal in Washington, but not for young people. They can still be arrested for it, among many other petty crimes, including those that poor teenagers commit to survive, and wealthy teenagers commit because they are kids and they can.

*     *     *

I wrote most of this essay before the nation reeled from events in Charlottesville, Virginia. We are now more aware than ever of the presence of angry neo-Nazis, who are filled with fear of that which is different than them. They are filled with fear of disappearing and choose to take that fear out on other people. If I were an incarcerated young man of color, I would also be afraid of disappearing. I would be afraid that no one would ever notice my experience, who I am, or what I deserve to have in life. I have been thinking every day of the young activist who said that as he stood in front of the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, he wondered to himself something like, am I doing this right? Is this what Dr. Martin Luther King would have done?

I hope I am doing this right, too, in my quiet small-town way. I don’t know the incarcerated youth I met. I can only imagine that they have felt for most of their lives the fear and anxiety I felt with that police officer. I have no idea what those young men were in for, what crimes they may have committed. I have no idea what’s been done to them. But if they want to write—I have hope. I hope telling their stories will help them see themselves as people whose stories deserve to be told. I hope some of everyone’s fears dissipate. I hope other people will read their stories and remember that incarcerated people are real humans, who could be them.

And they do want to write. Talib tells me that several of the young men have pieces ready to submit already. This gives me hope that the arc of history will bend towards justice in my little corner of the world.

 

Emma MargrafEmma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington, works for the state government, and writes for several local publications in the South Sound. She has been published in Manifest Station and is a candidate for an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Spotlight: Sonnet II: We’re Not in Chinatown Anymore / Sonnet XI: Fast Paces of Street Market Life

[poetry]

Sonnet II: We’re Not in Chinatown Anymore

Philly’s Chinatown has no Hollywood,
just a bunch of ripped up movie billboards,
blockbusters translated into Chinese,
signs right in front of the bookshop where I wait:
my father is buying his zodiac books,
fortunes for the new year. He’s psychic—
it’s the Tiger telling his Snake daughter
to watch her mouth, control her temper,
and avoid Rabbits in the game of love:
too much passion for too little time.

At this point, I’m too young. Rabbits are cute.
All I know is I want a bubble tea
from the ma & pa bake shop next door.
I look at the fluffy cakes. I want them all.

 


Sonnet XI: Fast Paces of Street Market Life

At home, Grandpa and Grandma get ready
for the day ahead: two pajama stands
to run in this city heat in closed spaces
following the pace of street market life.

Grandma deals with a bargaining housewife:
“$4 for the set? You can’t go lower?”
“It’s already only $6. Your children
need to keep warm.” She folds them, puts them

in a crinkly bag. Grandma’s such a boss,
full of energy, even at midday
when Mom and I meet her for late lunch:
off to a local joint for some beef balls,

long white noodles in bowls the size of my head,
add in some tripe, cheap, hearty Hong Kong eats.

 

Dorothy ChanDorothy Chan was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2016 semi-finalist for The Word Works’ Washington Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, and The McNeese Review. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review.

Editor’s note: Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue 11 overlapped with NDR’s Annual Chapbook Contest. At the same time that these two sonnets were accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, Dorothy’s “Chinatown Sonnets” chapbook was selected as NDR’s winner by guest judge Douglas Kearney.

Monster Under a Clear Blue Sky: Anger, Meditation, and Writing

One of my five roommates recently told me I am aggressive. We were in the kitchen and he was washing dishes. That night in the kitchen, I could be heard yelling, several times, “I am not f***ing aggressive.” The truth is, I have been in a six-month bad mood. My body is going through changes and I am prone to outbursts of anger and sadness. This is occurring within a deadly political landscape that nurtures hate and violence.

In a supermarket in Mailbu last year, I scolded a man who rudely bumped me with his cart. When he snapped back at me, I yelled loudly at him; I cursed. He proceeded to call me crazy in a taunting tone and I continued cursing him. This outburst left me feeling worn out and guilty that I couldn’t control my anger.

I am a Buddhist practitioner, which means that I deal in mood regulation, compassion, and skillful exertion to prevent harm. But I am human and I am often confused. When I sit here in my bedroom/office, with the curtains blocking the midsummer sun, I write to explain, to understand how aggression works in me and in the world.

*     *     *

In Buddhist philosophy, speed is often referred to as a form of aggression. The way we rush through everything without mindfulness is a bit violent and often causes a blindness. We are moving so fast, we render other beings invisible in haste to meet our needs.

Meditation­­—the process of sitting with your thoughts and letting them be, or of actively cultivating love—is slow, as is writing. These practices slow us down and they work slowly on us.

Murder works quickly. This past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a woman was murdered. She’d been attending an antifascist counterprotest to the white nationalist Nazis who’d arrived en masse to demand that a sculpture of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee not be removed. A man killed her when he intentionally drove his car into the antifascist counterprotestors. He is a known Nazi sympathizer.

I watched Facebook explode with this information and, since murder works quickly, I watched some friends wish death or bodily harm on these white supremacists. Others posted pictures of the terrorists with requests to share, so that employers would be aware that their employees were white supremacists and/or Nazis. These friends posting on FB will not perpetrate violence, but they are angry, and probably at a loss for how to counter this kind of aggression. I hear a lot of talk about choosing a side.

*     *     *

One can see anger as messy and harmful­­—me yelling at the guy in Malibu­­—or as a form of wisdom that can cut through untruth and see all sides clearly through the cloudy stories that form in our minds during an outburst. Who was I in the moment that man bumped me; who was he? How does my roommate experience my actions? My anger tells me something about them too. Where is the place for this clear-seeing anger right now? How can it assist us?

I don’t know.

I think that some people might view the white supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the face in January as a moment of clarity. Being anti-violence in a world where violence exists in so many forms is complicated. (Impossible?)

*     *     *

Right now in the United States there is much discussion about talking to the “other side.” In Buddhism, we think about it often; finding common ground in suffering. In being alive. We know we need to heal rifts. But I find it difficult to face the disappointment I feel in fellow Americans. I don’t want to talk to those people and, from the look of things, they don’t want to talk to me. I don’t want to try to convince them they are wrong. (But I also don’t want to kill them.)

 

What is crystal clear to me (and was before these events) is that racism is alive and well. That male aggression is killing us. That hate propagates quickly and love sparks slowly.

*     *     *

As a writer, I have the ethical intention to not replicate society’s bias and harm. When I write, my aggression becomes complex on the page and hopefully causes less harm. Because writing is not violent, not fast, it can siphon out hatred. But does it do any good?

I don’t know.

In meditation, my aggression boils and evaporates, turns to sadness, to air. It can feel like magic. But only if I meditate regularly. I know this practice helps me to avoid screaming matches. When practiced with more dedication than I am currently practicing, it will cultivate the bravery needed to answer some of these questions. I do not wish for meditation to cure my anger about injustice. Buddhist practice works to end suffering, which means that a practitioner must be concerned about injustice.

*     *     *

What should I be writing about? Should I be writing at all? I cannot answer these questions today. My anger does not feel wise or useful. My writing is filled with self-indulgent questioning.

*     *     *

In Buddhism, the word “extinguish” is used to describe how our meditation practice helps us to cool the heat of the self­­—the self that believes things strongly. The hot self who lusts and needs and hates. As a writer and a politically engaged human in the Western world, one of my daily tasks is how to cool these flames while continuing to act. This requires reservoirs of compassion filtered through turbines of wisdom to act skillfully: as true in writing as it is in meditation.

Maybe I dilute the clarity of anger with questions. I am reminded of this by Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century. Lesson #11 is “Investigate.” Inquiry is part of Buddhist practice too. Meditation practice and the ethical code of Buddhism asks us to look at causes and conditions. What are the causes of this racist violence and the conditions under which it has festered?

Lesson #4­­­ in On Tyranny is “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” in which Snyder instructs readers to notice the swastikas and to remove them. “Do not look away and do not get used to them.”

In meditation, we practice clear seeing, so we might take responsibility for ourselves and the world.

*     *     *

This is how I use a Buddhist lens to look at my country and myself. Sometimes I see a monster, but she is under a clear blue sky.

*     *     *

Today I write to counter my own aggression. So that my aggression evaporates, allowing me to see how to proceed skillfully when I change the face of the world.

May we slow down, see, stop killing.

 

Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a Creative Nonfiction Editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket and SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal.

 

Writers Read: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress is a quintessential hard-boiled mystery novel. Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is on par with two of the genre’s most notable characters, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. Set in 1948 Los Angeles, the sharply written first person narrative pays homage to its traditional genre conceits. There is a beautiful woman, seedy bars, crooked cops, bad guys, corrupt politicians and of course, murders. From the opening sentence, the novel is fast moving and entertaining as Easy goes about finding a missing woman. While the novel is an example of expert craftsmanship as it relates to plot, character development, and narrative voice, it excels at social commentary. Infused in the entertainment are bitter lessons on racial inequities and social injustice experienced by people of color, and in particular, the black male.

Easy Rawlins is black. He is neither a police officer nor private investigator. He is an out-of-work everyman who simply needs to pay his mortgage. Mosley’s choice to create his main character in this way lends strength to the novel. Easy has migrated to Los Angles from Houston for a better life, and for all intents and purposes, has succeeded. He is a homeowner, owns a nice car, and has recently earned his high-school diploma in night school. Even still, his world is on the brink of collapse. He has recently lost his job for standing his ground with a white man. It is in this container of social injustice that the story takes place.

Devil in a Blue Dress begins its social commentary in the first sentence: “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar,” Mosley writes. He goes on to use the word white five times in the opening paragraph while laying the groundwork for what appears to be the novel’s thematic conflict: how does a black man self-actualize in a society where powerful, white male forces are his constant nemesis? It is the age-old Negro question that appears in the writings of social reformers Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Mosley does a masterful job introducing the antagonistic forces of white male privilege in the character of Mr. Dewitt Albright. Albright (a play on words) is described as a white man large enough to block the doorframe. He wears a white linen suit, white shoes, white silk socks, and even drives a white Cadillac. Albright’s strawberry blond hair and pale eyes cause Easy to feel “a thrill of fear.” Albright feigns respect to gain Easy’s confidence. However, when asked how he might respond if Easy broke into his house he replied, “I’d tear your nigger head out its root.”

Mosley writes, “A job in a factory is an awful lot like working on a plantation in the South.” This powerful sentence sets up the novel’s social commentary on another bastion of white male privilege, the workplace. The dominant caricatures of black men during slavery—Coon, Picaninny, and Tom—portrayed them as lazy, childlike, ignorant, and groveling. Easy’s supervisor, Benny Giacomo, whom he describes as, “darker than many mulattos I’d known,” holds the negative stereotypes resulting from the propaganda that has become folklore. He sees Easy as lazy, childlike, and in need of a lesson. Easy, on the other hand, when presented with an opportunity to get his job back, is not willing to grovel. He says, “I concentrated on keeping my head erect, I wasn’t going to bow down to him.”

Walter Mosley

The novel also offers commentary on the violent policing of black men. Throughout the story, the police loom as a capricious, evil, and predatory force. After Easy is punched in the diaphragm and tossed in the backseat of a cruiser without explanation, we learn that it is a regular occurrence. “I had played the game of cops and nigger before,” Easy says while in custody. “It’s hard acting innocent when you know you are, but the cops know that you aren’t.” The police station scene sheds light on law enforcement propensity to incarcerate innocent black men. It also speaks to the physical violence the black male often endures: “Before I could turn I felt the hard knot of his fist explode against my head.”

In his quest to find the missing woman, Easy gains access to the world of Todd Carter, one of Los Angeles’s most powerful men. The scene is crafted in a way that offers the reader hope. After Easy experiences violence and threats of violence at the hands of the other white male characters in the novel, Todd Carter appears to be civil toward him. Mosley draws Carter as vulnerable, honest, and caring. Sitting in Carter’s office drinking the finest brandy he has ever tasted, Easy says it feels like they are best friends, even closer. Noticing that Carter doesn’t have the fear or contempt that most white people show when dealing with him, Easy feels a sense of relief, as if he will finally be treated with the dignity he deserves. He comments in the next sentence, however, “Todd Crater was so rich he didn’t even consider me in human terms. I could have been a prize dog. It was the worst kind of racism.”

Walter Mosey said, “I write about believable black male heroes in a world where there aren’t many.” Easy Rawlins is heroic and believable, indeed. In a society where the dominant white male seeks to dehumanize at every turn, he maintains his dignity. Most importantly, however, he keeps his cool offering a counter to the stereotype of the angry, reckless black male. Describing the voice that speaks to him in the worst of times, Easy says, “The voice has no lust. He never told me to rape or steal. He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. Survive like a man.”

 

Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. Washington Square P, 2002.

Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. He is the executive director of Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.

My Great Divide

When I was a young girl, I tried to teach myself to fly. Every night before lights out, I’d stand on my bed, flap my arms, and look for a sign, any shred of evidence that I was improving my technique. I had a mad crush on the cartoon superhero Underdog, and I wanted to be just like him, to swoop down and help those in trouble. Today, as a country, we are all in trouble, but there is no magic helper who is going to appear from the sky. How will we find our way?

I work full-time as an English tutor but have always been a writer a heart. Until last November, I’d let my writing take a back seat to the rest of my life. But when I called a close friend to ask for some guidance about how to deal with the Presidential election results, he simply said, “Diane, you must write.”

I hung up the phone and immediately began my application to the Antioch MFA program in creative writing. It felt right. In the months before my first residency, I struggled. I knew writing was my way of connecting to others, to the world, to be heard. But doesn’t everyone need to find a way to be heard? Where were all the individual voices? It seemed like there was only room for two voices in our country—the two sides of our national divide: us and them; me and “the other.”

Who is this “other?” Who lives on the opposite side of the divide? Are our conceptions based on real, whole human beings, or on some collective caricature we’ve been spoon-fed, some political imaginary? Who is it we fear?

*     *     *

Much has been made about the divide in our country, the rift between the coastal cities and the rural center. I live in New York, in a suburb on Long Island, about ten miles east of Manhattan. I don’t have to travel to Ohio or Louisiana or Kentucky to find others whose views are in sharp contrast to my own. I have my own great divide, just a few towns over, in my family. My great divide is my sister.

My sister and I are sixty-two and fifty-six years old respectively. We have a lot of history under our bridge. We have not yet worked out our sibling rivalry. Even though our parents are long gone, we still court their favor. And still, we are sisters. We have always had a complicated relationship, but we have managed to remain friends. We have never kept our distance—until Trump.

The power of Trump is something that I have been unable to wrap my head around. He is not a great leader, a master orator, or a brilliant mind. If he were any one of those, I would more easily understand. Trump does not put forth his message in well-constructed prose; half the time, his words don’t make sense. But he has hit the mark often enough to have wooed a great number of people on board. People in red states. And people like my sister. Trump’s lure: words of hate. Words of fear. Words of the collective imagination.

Writers, too, have words. In these divisive times, I wonder what we writers are to do. During the June residency at Antioch, I sat in a packed classroom, listening to author/activist Rick Bass address the issue of the writer’s responsibility during these trying times. He was of the mind that we must act: “It is not the time for poetry,” he said. “We are not facing questions of sustainability, but of survival.” Bass related football metaphors, the need to “dominate our opposition,” push back hard, shout. There certainly is a place for that approach, and today may very well be the time, but pushing and shouting creates a whole lot of noise. Is there no longer any space to listen?

Even in our classroom, among like-minded/progressive/social-justice oriented writers, things became loud and testy. Buttons were pushed, chasms created. How, then, do we open this discussion with those on the “other” side? How do I speak with my sister?

*     *     *

When I need to find clarity, I often look to another of my childhood heroes—Mr. Rogers. While I did not know him personally, I swore he knew me. Every day, especially on the loneliest days—of which I had many—I looked forward to Mr. Rogers’ PBS TV show. He told me, and I believed, that I was OK just the way I was. There was no “other” in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and difference was always celebrated. We were, after all, neighbors.

Mr. Rogers spoke about the “Garden of Your Mind,” where ideas could “grow” in our imaginations. But the ideas in Mr. Rogers’ garden were tended with love. Growing a beautiful garden never happens by accident. It takes a person willing to get down on his knees in the dirt, to sweat, to do the hard work. He cannot be lazy.

Imagination, like a garden, requires work and patience and light. While imagination is the wellspring of possibility, and the most powerful force for good that we have, imagination also has a lazy cousin. It is this shady relative, this underbelly, who we collectively call upon when we create the image of the “other” and meld his face with our fear.

I am a White East Coast Jew. Do those four simple words stir up an image for you? What is it about me that you imagine?

*     *     *

I have, in the past, broached politics with my sister, but I’ve always treaded lightly. As soon as the temperature in the room would rise to a point of discomfort, I’d retreat. I avoided the paths of domination and shouting, and chose silence instead. Over time, I have built a wall—not on the Texas border, or across Arizona, but my wall has left a lonely hole in my family as deep as the Grand Canyon. What is it I fear?

My sister and I, who have disagreed many times over the years, have never doubted that we were of the same species, same planet, same God. But now we are strangers, heeding the words we were taught as children: never talk to strangers.

*     *     *

Words have power. Enormous power. To create. To destroy. To build bridges and build walls. Words give people—even inarticulate people—the power to rule, if not to lead. You do not need all the right words to reach into people’s minds. Just repeat a few toxic memes, with great, if feigned conviction, and you will soon gain access to the places in the body where fear, hate, and yes, the imagination, live. Wherever that place is, it is certainly not the heart.

I need to open my heart. I will speak to my sister. And, I will listen. I will listen to her hopes for our country. I will listen to her fears. I will own my feelings and beliefs and take responsibility for my role, my own reenactment of this bad movie that is playing throughout our land. It is not the time for noise. Or shouting. But it is no longer a time for silence.

*     *     *

I’ve asked a lot of questions. I don’t have all the answers. That’s OK. Heartfelt inquiry inspires the highest form of imagination—and hope. In this era of Trump, it is critical for writers to keep their questions coming, to plant seeds, cultivate gardens. We need to write and act, to speak our truths both on the page and in person. But, first, we need to listen. My goal as a writer is to forge my own path across states and counties; the first steps on that journey must lead me to my sister, across my own backyard.

 

Diane Gottlieb is the sole proprietor of LongIslandEnglishTutor.com, a full-service English tutoring business that she started five years ago. She is grateful for the opportunity to combine her passion for working with kids of all ages with her love of all things English. She earned her MSW from Boston College and her MEd in Secondary English Education from Hofstra University. Diane writes both fiction and nonfiction and is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and lives in New York and Florida.

Spotlight: Letters From Indiana

[creative nonfiction]

My mom sent me letters from Indiana. Stacks of cards with flowers and curly, purple ink inside. Breathtaking cursive spanned the card. My small hands touched the parts where she’d written sweet girl or my name. She had her first nervous breakdown when I was six years old, and was admitted to a hospital where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and my father were recently divorced, but lived together, so while she stayed with my aunt in Indiana, I stayed with dad in our big, blue house in Holly, Michigan. When my dad gave me a new letter, I snuck it off to my room where I sat on a pink, ruffled bed and read it over and over. I put the card on my desk next to others arranged to face my bed.

After two months of cards, I was allowed to visit her. I was seven by then. I kicked my legs excitedly in the backseat of my dad’s SUV as he drove to a rest stop halfway between our house and my aunt Lisa’s. Lisa drove me the rest of the way to Indiana. The car ride was a blur of eager anticipation. When we reached her subdivision, I realized that I’d never seen where she lived. I only knew Aunt Lisa in the context of family gatherings at my grandparents’ house in Ohio.

My curiosity about Lisa’s house disappeared when she opened the door and called my mom’s name. Lisa walked through the foyer and into the living room. I stood in the doorway. My heartbeat quickened, and then I saw her. Mom was sitting in the living room, like a shy terrier on the couch, waiting for me to approach. She was cautious and quiet. Not how she used to be. The skylight made the room look cold and the distance from the foyer to the living room made me anxious. My pink, glitter shoes made squeaking sounds on the tile in the entryway as I walked toward her. Why didn’t she run and hug me? Why was everyone so quiet?

Everything from the living room carpet to the shelves and the smell of the air was clean. Every surface shone. I didn’t know how to act in this house. I was used to candles burning, covers thrown carelessly on furniture, and toys scattered on the floor. I looked around the room, and from my mom’s face to the folded hands in her lap. Maybe she didn’t know how to act here either.

I tried to get her to laugh and be silly. When she was happy, Mom would crack jokes and have everyone near her laughing. A woman once called her “Hollywood” because every time she saw her, Mom was singing and smiling. Now her face was puffy, her features blurred. Her smiles carved new lines on her face and disappeared quickly. Weren’t they letting her laugh here?

She seemed scared, like she wanted to leave. I told her she could come home with me. She cried, and tried to wipe the tears from her face before I could see. She wouldn’t look at me. She tried to occupy me with flowery hair clips and crossword books. She asked me questions about my dad, teachers, and school.

When it was time to leave, I asked if she was coming with me. Lisa said Mom had to stay in Indiana a little longer. Why were they speaking for her? Why couldn’t she leave? I thought she was trapped, but when I offered escape she wouldn’t take it.

“Mom?” I asked. I wanted her to say why she wouldn’t come home.

Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass.

She looked at my aunt Lisa. Lisa nodded, and Mom said “I’ll see you soon, honey.” End of discussion. Mom would stay in Indiana until they said she could come home.

Now I know that my mom was subdued because she was medicated, and didn’t know what to tell me. She was in Indiana because she couldn’t be alone, and because a psychiatrist said she was unfit to care for me. A condition of her release from the mental hospital was that family would care for her until the psychiatrist said she was stable enough to live on her own. Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass. Lisa was good at joking, cleaning, pretending… But her life wasn’t easier than ours. Most days she battled either depression or her controlling husband. Which meant she was good at keeping the house clean, and having easy answers for difficult questions.

*     *     *

When my mom felt stronger she moved out of Lisa’s basement and back to Michigan. Though they were divorced, she’d been living with my dad to feign normalcy and keep my life simple. After her breakdown, she was too much for him to handle, so she rented an apartment near Dad and school. The apartment was on the third floor of a squat, brick building. We could hear sirens from the small living room, but Mom said it was safe, that we heard sirens because we were near a hospital. She put sunflower laminate inside the bathroom cabinets and strawberry decorations in the kitchen. We stationed bright lamps in each room. She was back to smiling, laughing and being my mom so quickly that it seemed like she’d never been gone. She couldn’t work, but received social security and did well as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer for my Girl Scout troop. She was happy for a while. More stable.

While I was in middle school, she got a job at a real estate company and saved money from her commissions. We moved from the apartment to a small condo in a better neighborhood. The walls in the condo’s living room were mirrored. Mom said a body-builder lived there before us. I used to imagine him with a buzz cut, in a bright pink and yellow leotard, flexing in our living room. The kitchen was decorated in strawberries again, but was so small that when I opened the drawers they nearly touched the wall. There were no sirens, and we had a backyard. A backyard where we sat in the grass, did crafts, and where I celebrated my tenth birthday with friends.

When I was thirteen, she was promoted and we moved into a bigger condo closer to the middle school and high school. It was beautiful, with wood floors, granite countertops and vaulted ceilings. Upstairs, the walls and white carpet were covered in rainbows from refracted sunlight. After a string of apartments and dingy condos, it was home. It was the cheapest in the subdivision because it was so close to the main road. We didn’t care. We joked that our driveway had a name because Woodcliff Trail, the entrance to the subdivision, was a short street that ended at our garage. We called our condo the beach house because traffic from the highway sounded like waves outside our door. We called the couch the big boat and the loveseat the little boat, and would use our hands to make binoculars so we could spy on each other from opposite sides of the living room.

She unpacked the strawberry decorations and put them in the kitchen. We bought furniture from Rent-a-Center and painted my room. It was the first time I had a room I could paint. I wanted to paint full scale scenes on the walls, but mom convinced me to settle for purple, blue, and pink sponge patterns instead. We made friends with a chipmunk that visited our porch, and laughed about the traces of glitter from her crafting. Our condo was the promise of a good future for us. It was as if her mental illness was a bad dream we’d shared long ago.

*     *     *

By the time I entered high school, my mom would work for three days without sleep. When the weekend came, she’d stay in her pajamas, stay home, and nap. I learned to notice when she’d gone off her meds. Without medicine she was more stressed than energetic and sad than tired. I didn’t know what she was taking, but I knew to ask her if she was taking it.

I thought we were in control, but there were days when the act fell short, and I saw we’d been lulled into a false sense of wellbeing. Either we’d gone too long without refilling her prescription or she’d been hiding her mood swings from me and trying to work through them on her own. But she couldn’t pretend for long. Everything inside her would pile up and spill over.

These were the days when she’d cry silently, her chest heaving like a child’s. Her muscles would tighten and her face contort in pain. Her round, freckled cheeks would be stained with tears. Eyes shut impossibly tight. Her mouth would hang open and her face would turn red. A numbness would overcome her, as if nothing I said or did could reach her.

I’d pretended I wasn’t scared. I’d talk to her, barely able to hear myself speak over my pounding heartbeat. When talking didn’t help, I’d run upstairs to the white carpeted landing that led to my room. I’d duck in the shadows, behind the half-wall as if it were a barricade and I was on the front line. From the dark upper landing, I’d watch my mom in the living room below writhe on the couch and scream in anguish. She’d scream lonely, angry screams ending in sobs that echoed up the walls and into the vaulted ceiling. I’d hide behind the half-wall and dial my Aunt Becky’s number.

My aunt would answer, and I’d tell her Mom was upset again. In the background, my aunt would hear my mother shrieking like an animal was ripping her apart. She’d asked to speak with her. Mom would talk to Becky and glare at me. She didn’t approve of me getting family involved, but once Becky saw through her façade it came crumbling down. My mom would cry. She’d say she was fine, but sad. That she’d be okay. Becky would ask to speak with me again. I’d climb upstairs, and we’d talk about whether she’d drive from Ohio to help. We’d decide it was all right. And after I hung up and heard the silence, I would breathe deeply, knowing that mom would be okay as long as I was there.

*     *     *

In the summer of 2012 I was taking classes at community college, working, and living at home. On Tuesdays I’d visit my dad. One Tuesday that June I decided to stop by mom’s house first. On the way, I got a text message from her that read, “I’ll love you forever.” Nothing else.

I sped until I was home. I pulled into the driveway and ran across the walkway to our door. Inside I saw a bottle of vodka, a glass full of tomato juice, and a pack of cigarettes on the living room table. Ashes and medicine bottles were strewn across the wood.

She told me she was sad, that she’d been fired, and she didn’t want me to see what would happen next. She rambled about her plan, and how they were going to take her away. She said I wouldn’t have to see the body. She cried, I pleaded, and as we spoke, I started to understand her threat. She meant what she was saying. Nothing I said would convince her not to kill herself.

I felt like a child. I wanted to yell for help, to run to the loft and call my aunt Becky, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone. So I told Mom to sit down. I sat opposite her on the loveseat and texted Becky with my phone on silent, hidden between me and the couch cushions. I talked to Mom, using the voice and words I’d heard people in movies use when they needed to calm someone clinging to the side of a bridge or window ledge. I didn’t know how long I could pretend to be calm. I didn’t want to be there if she killed herself, but I couldn’t leave her.

We talked for the next two hours until she was so exhausted she fell asleep on the couch. My aunt arrived a little later. She walked in the door, sat next to my mom on the couch, and pet her hair until she woke. I watched them, feeling like an outsider eavesdropping on a stranger’s emotional moment with a friend. I didn’t feel sorry for Mom. I wasn’t happy that she was alive. I was numb. Some part of me was relieved Becky was there, but all I felt was tired. I wasn’t sure if that night really happened, and didn’t want to know the truth. So I went to bed, and took refuge in unconsciousness.

I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful.

The next morning, I woke and confronted the evidence of the night before. My aunt was cleaning the mess in the living room. Ashes in the trash can. Pill bottles gone. She told me that while she was cleaning she found a note, and asked if I knew anything about it. I told her I didn’t, and a few minutes later dug through her purse until I found it. I took the folded piece of paper upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom.

My palms were clammy and fingers shook as I unfolded the paper. I scanned it quickly then reread it, searching for my name. I don’t know what I thought I’d find. I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful. It was a suicide note written with simple words, by a woman unable to stand the pain of thought, language, or living any more, but unable to leave without an explanation. It amounted to something about losing her job, how hard life was, and that she and hoped everyone would understand.

*     *     *

I despised her for her selfishness. For trying to leave me. For putting her pain before mine and everyone else’s. For saying with assorted medicine and that fucking note, that whatever pain her death caused wouldn’t matter if she could relieve her own. During the month after she left, my helplessness turned to rage. I resented her for being weak. I was angry that she left me to deal with her foreclosure and pack while she pieced together her psyche. She went with Becky to live in Ohio. And again she was living in her sister’s basement. But this time, it was a different sister, and in a different state.

Becky is the sister who looks most like Mom, talks like Mom, though she always seemed tougher to me. People told stories about Becky being the one a man in her subdivision called when he found a snake in his yard. Becky was the driver for long road trips. She was either everyone’s mom or everyone’s dad depending on the circumstance.

Though Mom is the eldest of her sisters, her breakdown left her in a childlike state. She surrounded the bed and the remaining room in Becky’s basement with seemingly meaningless objects, including a shell and shadowbox items. Everything else was in boxes. She asked me to come with her. I couldn’t bear the idea of being another one of mom’s prized possessions collecting dust in Becky’s basement. And I still hadn’t forgiven her. So I stayed in Michigan and moved in with my dad, marking the first time in decades my mother and I had any separation.

*     *    *

A few months later, my mom and Becky returned to Michigan to get more of Mom’s things from the house. Becky sat with me on the front porch and explained that I needed to be nice to my mother.

“She’s sick,” she said.

The concrete of our porch was cool on my legs on that hot August day. I stared at the cars that passed on the road beyond our driveway. The neighborhood kids rode by on brightly colored bikes, shrieking and laughing. A garish light shone off the metal.

She put her hand on my uncovered knee.

I turned.

“She’s sick, just like someone would be sick with pneumonia or cancer, or anything else. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. I don’t know very much about this stuff, but from what I’ve heard the doctor say, that’s how we have to think of it. That she’s sick and we need to try and help her.”

My lip quivered. I bit at the inside of my cheek and tilted my head down, trying not to cry. I clenched my stomach muscles, willing myself to be stronger. Be stronger. Be stronger. The only way to get over her breakdown was if I refused to let it break me too.

“We have to help her just like we would if her body was sick. Her mind is hurting and she needs our help.”

Becky, her sisters, and my grandparents had been dealing with Mom’s mental illness for decades. They knew more about when she was in the hospital, rehabilitated in a mental clinic where she did arts and crafts, and lived with Lisa, but I knew what it was like to live with her day to day. I knew her better than any of them, and felt betrayed in a way that I thought they couldn’t understand.

Becky stared at my face for a long time, waiting for me to speak. I stared at the concrete.

“I know she hurt you,” she said more quietly, “but you have to forgive her. She’s your mother and she needs you. She loves you.” My aunt put a hand on my back.

I started to cry. Terrible, childish crying. I felt guilty and angry with myself. Crying reminded me of my mother. For years I couldn’t be weak, wouldn’t let myself get emotional, because I had to be there for her, and promised that I’d never break like she did. Her suicide attempt showed me that I wasn’t enough. I gripped my aunt’s hand as her other rubbed circles on my back. She let me cry. Then she led me into the house to help my mom.

I helped them pack some of her clothes and said I’d watch the house for a few days while they figured out what to do. I remember waving to them from the front door. After they pulled away, I walked upstairs to my past refuge.

During the foreclosure process, the water and power in the house had been shut off. It was cold upstairs and the furniture was gone. I settled calmly on the floor. I slowly leaned my head onto the dirty, white carpet, and I cried. My hands spread out in front of me. My nose dripped onto the carpet filled with lint and dirt from all the people who’d been trying to help us move out of this house. I whispered, “God” and “please,” hoping He could string my prayer together without other words. I felt emptied of strength and feeling. My mom was my best friend and I hated her. I didn’t want to talk to her, but I had to check on her, make sure she was okay, and coordinate the foreclosure with the condo association.

It was dark and cold in the house, but I didn’t care. My hands gripped the carpet. I could feel the dry fibers of it on the tender skin beneath my nails. I pinched the muscles in my face, gritted my teeth, and then opened my mouth against the carpet and screamed.

This time I wasn’t hiding. I wasn’t calling my aunt or peeking at Mom over the wall. Her screams didn’t fill the house. This time, the screams echoing through our beach house were mine. I wasn’t trying to help her get through one of her episodes. It was too late for that. I’d already failed, and everything broke. So I screamed until the sun set. I screamed in our empty, cold house. The cars on the highway sounded like waves outside our door, and I sat alone in the near darkness. I couldn’t think or speak. Instead I muttered and sobbed, and hoped those waves would swallow me whole.

 

Brooke WhiteBrooke White received her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. She’s a Michigan native, with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Ugly Sapling, and Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche series.

Excuse Me, Have You Seen God?

Recently I went to Spirit Rock Meditation Center searching for God. After years of searching inside holy books, places of worship, and time spent conversing with pious men, She was nowhere to be found. My goal was to commune with Her; I hoped to assuage the final vestiges of fear that I’d carried for much too long. Fear that was burned into my seven-year-old psyche one Friday night at a good ole’ fashioned tent revival.

The revival wasn’t my first exposure to the idea of God. I had been going to church since I was in diapers. My three sisters, who are a decade older than me, sang in the choir. The middle sister’s contralto tone made the church shout hallelujah. Her voice was thick and oily and sweet like Etta James’s. Often fresh off a boozy Saturday night, my uncle played the organ. He was known for shaking the church walls and stirring up a frenzy. My mom was Deaconess. I remember her crisp white dress, white hat, and snappy white gloves. So I had been absorbing ideas of God via osmosis since my first days on the planet. But nothing had prepared little me for what went down that Friday night. The preacher was, as they say, “on one.” Stompin’ across the stage, sweatin’ and roarin’ about Satan and sin and hellfire, and whatnot. On a gigantic screen behind his lectern, a slideshow of flaming dragons and six-headed beasts augmented the message.

“You”—he pointed at my seven-year-old face—“are a sinner!” I gulped, sinking low in my folding chair. But there was no place to hide. “You were born a sinner! Repent now from your evil ways or burn in hell!”

What awful news that was for my seven-year-old psyche. I mean, even the Motion Picture Association of America recognizes it’s not cool to scare the shit out of kids. Nevertheless, this began my odyssey to reconcile with a God, who after all the preacher’s threats, supposedly loved me. It is the reason I ended up at Spirit Rock.

*     *     *

I had been on Spirit Rock’s grounds many times, tagging along with JoAnna Harper, my soon-to-be wife (yay me) who is a long-time Dharma practitioner and retreat teacher. While she taught meditation, I would spend time in nearby Fairfax, mostly at the local coffee roaster, writing. I’d sometimes catch a yoga class then go for an elixir in the hippie-chic kava bar. But I would also dip my toe in the retreat water. Every so often I’d join the yogis in the meditation hall for a thirty-minute sit; I almost always attended the nightly Dharma talks. The teachings of the Buddha landed on me like the longest sigh. Sans judgment and beasts and hellfire, it felt as if I’d returned home after an arduous journey. Inclusion, respect and love of all beings (even pesky mosquitoes) felt like my jam. And Godlike.

Hanging out in the teachers’ village, I once said to my sweetheart, “Man, it sure is nice being on retreat.”

She paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “Well, yeah. But you’re not on retreat.” There was a seriousness in her tone and hints in her gaze.

Today I understand her subtext. It wasn’t a warning per se. Well, maybe it was. Whatever the case, I signed up thinking six days of no talking, reading, writing, texting, checking emails, sans St. John Coltrane, can’t be that hard.

I recognized a tiny part of me wanted to go for ego’s sake. Even if I didn’t find God, the retreat would give me a sort of spiritual one-upmanship over, well, most everybody in the world. We’ve become like crackheads. All hyped-up, clicking, scrolling, over-posting, liking, and snapping selfies. The retreat would give me license to gaze down those addicts and casually mention, “Yeah, back when I was on silent retreat,” and note their shame. So there was that.

Mostly though, I have a desire to move through the world with grace, ease, and compassion. To that end, I had discovered a Buddhist practice called Metta, or lovingkindness. Lovingkindness asks: may all beings be at peace, may all beings be happy, may all beings be well, may all beings be safe, may all beings be free from suffering. I figured that even if God wasn’t there, practicing lovingkindness was a good thing. So off I went to sit my first meditation retreat.

*     *     *

Spirit Rock rests on 411 acres of serene woodlands, secluded in the hills of West Marin County, California. The breezes are cool, scented with bark, browning leaves, and earth. There are trickling streams and steep hiking trails leading to what feels like the top of the world. Families of wild turkeys and deer seem to carry on without fear of predators. And there is stillness—stillness that creates an incredible soundstage for the wildlife. I found a panorama of buzzing and chirping and clicking; the chests of male turkeys sounding like a thousand maracas as they strutted for their girlfriends. And, as it turned out, my retreat was called Natural Liberation. I was going to practice outdoors amid all that beauty.

It was on day four when I began to question my decision. And my sanity for that matter. Instead of settling down on day three, as the teachers had promised, my mind had become a full-on three-ring circus of non-stop chatter. Augmented by, now get this, a Snoop Dogg Gin & Juice soundtrack. The Snoop Dogg thing was straight up bizarre. And it started on the first day. Imagine my chagrin as I sat in a meadow amid the jazz of so many birds, and Snoop Dogg began to play. I giggled quietly, “Dude, rolling down the street smoking indo sipping on gin and juice? Really? That’s what we’re doing right now?” Snoop remained my companion throughout day one. He was back on day two. On day three, I’d had enough of his ass, but realized I had zero control over my thoughts. Then I realized I had no idea who was thinking the thoughts. Or exactly how many were inside my head.

At some point, as I chased voices from one side of my head to the other, the teacher remarked, “A lot of you are seeing things that appear new. They’re not. It’s just that you’ve never been quiet enough to notice. Trust the process. It gets better.”

I didn’t believe him, but I kept doing the work. And let me tell you, a silent meditation retreat is nowhere near as leisurely as it sounds. It is every bit as grueling as a National Football League training camp. I know because I’ve attended both. The bell rings at six in the morning; meditation practice ends at nine-thirty at night. Sitting cross-legged for hours on end my psoai were sore like I’d been running one-hundred-yard wind sprints. It was the mental fatigue, however, that gave me the most trouble. Repeated crashing into personal myths, family folklore, pretense, craving, and ego—while Snoop Dogg plays—ain’t no joke. The struggle, as they say, was real.

Lying in bed after day four I gave up. Not only had I not found God, but the noise inside my head prevented the lovingkindness practice from landing in my bones. The only thing I had accomplished was unearthing my mental instability. I had failed.

The next morning I woke up prepared for another day of mental mayhem. I sat on my cushion; my eyes fell shut and lo and behold—there was stillness—a nanosecond at best. Even still it was a sweet, ethereal stillness that defies description. For the first time in my life, I was present. No planning. No remembering. And no goddamn Snoop Dogg. There on my cushion, I finally had a fleeting glimpse of God. I saw that She is lovingkindness. That revival tent preacher had it all wrong.

The 1990 National Book Award winner for fiction, Charles Johnson—who it just so happens is Buddhist—has said writing well is thinking well. Now I know his secret to thinking so well. The mental benefits of meditation include: increases in mental strength and focus, heightened memory retention and recall, better cognitive skills and creative thinking, improved decision making and problem-solving, faster information processing. Meditation teaches a person to ignore distractions and helps manage ADHD.

That I might become a better writer by itself is motivation for me to deepen my practice. However, the lovingkindness is what most appeals to me. It gives me occasion to say, “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease”—to even the pesky mosquito.

 

Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. He is the executive director of Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.