Friday, June 24, 2005

 

death in one class, life in another (and breakfast in a third)

The days are starting to glide into one another now, in the loveliest way. I'm fully acclimated to the schedule now, and I'm starting to mourn the fact that it's going so fast. I'm having a brilliant time. Laughing. Having great classes. Making new friends. Gawking at the eagles perched in the fir trees. Drinking coffee at the Back Door. Feeling at peace. It's all going too fast. I don't want to come home yet.

I love this place. Magic happens here.

It's astonishing to me, every year, how students trust me, trust each other, in so short a time. Within four days, they become a group. And we create this sacred space together.

In fiction (9 to 10:30), we told stories and laughed, wrote and shared pieces. Every day, story times grows a little longer, because they're all so eager to speak out their moments. And now that they know each other, every story spurs another one. On the first day, I have to rely on the students I have taught before to lead the way. By now, I have to cut them off. They would stay in the library all day and tell stories to each other, if I let them. We generated lists of strong verbs yesterday, sensory verbs that flash an image in our minds with their presence, words that create characters immediately. Finn and Anthea were kind enough to step up and be our actors. They stood by the map rack and acted out a scene spontaneously. We went around the circle, each student shouting out a sensory verb, and then one of the actors would have to demonstrate it, creating a relationship. And damned if they didn't do it. No matter if the word was gesticulate or lull, pounce or quiver. Within a minute, we had a scene, a relationship, and a conflict. Genius. We finished out the class by describing our favorite breakfasts, which they had no problem doing in loving, lavish detail. And then we went around the circle again, each student picking another student's description and making guesses as to personality based on the choices. Damned if they didn't have each other right. We ended the day giggling.

After lunch, in Advanced Writing (1 to 2:30), we had the most extraordinary class I may have ever taught. It moved me so deeply that I don't think I can write about it well. But since most of what I teach in writing classes is about pressing against the ineffable, I'll try. I had asked the class to write pieces in response to some form of art that had moved them deeply. (The Advanced Writing Workshop is a seminar in personal essays this year.) Tamsin read her piece about watching a film of the last man executed by guillotine. It was a clear, strong piece, gorgeous and simple. And without being didactic, she was clearly questioning the multitudes of cheap violence on tv. This one felt real. After anyone reads a piece, I say, "Comments? What did you notice that you liked?" Usually, they talk about the writing, a turn of phrase, an effective metaphor. But this time, the only boy in the class, Baxter, said he had been moved by the piece, because he had seen the same film on the History Channel, and had been deeply disturbed. This opened the discussion to violence on film. And then, with a subtle shift, born of deep listening, they began to talk about death. The students talked about visiting the Holocaust museum, the visceral images that forced them awake. About grandmothers' death. About the death of friends in middle school. They shared poems and stories and tears, because we all had tears in our eyes almost immediately. One of the girls said, with great difficulty, "My grandfather died last summer. But that wasn't the hardest part....The hardest part was watching my father cry...." And her face turned red, and her eyes sprung shut. She pulled her knees up to her chest and tried to roll into a ball. Her voice quavered so deeply that she could no longer speak. I teared up immediately, frustrated that I was across the table and couldn't touch her arm in sympathy. But before I could move, hands reached out to touch her, appease her, make her feel loved. Hands patted her shoulder, smoothed her hair, and held her hands. And we all understood. WE had all been there, alone, and now we were together. And now it was okay to cry. So there we were, 14 girls, one boy, and one teacher, in the upper mezzanine of the Stratton Library, the cars splashing through the rain outside, and we were alive.

But how to follow that? We all hugged each other. I know the students felt a sense of communion, at having shared this together. And I know they felt grateful, for having the chance to talk about what spilled out of them, since we avoid talking about death in this culture. But if you never recognize death, how can you be alive? So they shuffled out of the space, slowly, reluctant to go, tears smearing their faces. Four of them stayed, quiet in their seats, because they were also in poetry, which started immediately after. (2:30 to 4) The new students filed in, skipping and giddy to be there, but stopped short by the sight of their campermates crying. I told the four to take a break, walk around, collect their thoughts. And we began reading poems. But about halfway through, just after we finished writing, I looked outside to see the rain. It pounded down rain outside, unusual for Sitka, where it usually mists. Big puddles splashed on the tennis court outside. I had intended to take my class outside, to write about this place, to smell it and drink in its sights. But after the raw connection and remnants of tears from the previous period, I knew we needed something joyful. We needed to be rinsed clean. "Let's go outside and feel the rain on our faces," I said to them spontaneously. And instead of complaining that it woudl be cold and they'd be smirched by the experience, they all leapt up. I love camp kids. We ran into the cold, fat raindrops and danced. Some twirled. Some splashed, jumping the water onto their pants. Some ran. Some turned their faces to the sky and closed their eyes. Berett ran to the top of the hill and twirled in slow circles, opening her arms wide to the world. Just as I noticed her, Adrienne did too. So the older sister ran toward her younger one, as fast as she could, to meet her, and join in the moment. It filled me with joy to see it, to see all of them, giddy and accepting, laughing together. Kari lay down on the grass, her pink pants darkened with rain drops immediately. She gave her body to the ground and lay there without moving, just to feel the rain upon her face fully. Beautiful. I ran to Maya, held out my hands, and we spun each other around and around, until we were so dizzy we had to let go. Adrienne ran to me, and we grabbed hands. I looked at her face as we twirled around, her smile wide. I don't think she could have stopped smiling at that moment if she had tried. And then I looked past her shoulder to the world circling around me. The harbor. Sailboats. Mountain. Eagles floating by. Green trees. Water. Mast. Boat. Tree. Feet. Ground. Grass. Sky.

Stop.

It was a moment of utter delight, no thought. Just breath and twirl and smile and yes.

So one class was death. And the other was life. (And the one before them, breakfast.)

That's camp.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

 

Bach filling the air

The exhaustion has set in, of course. We each teach three, hour-and-a-half-long classes, attend an hour-long ArtShare every evening, prepare our classes for the next day, go grocery shopping, eat together, talk together, drink together. (And I have papers to mark up, on top of that.) There's no real down time, and everything is connected. So it's a joyful exhaustion, but it's still exhaustion. Yesterday, everyone reached that state of saying, "Why are we here?" Except for me, because I know, and they will too, by the end of this. And the exhaustion has just led to a punch-drunk goofiness. We have a big lounge where we're staying, the best faculty-hang spot of any of the places we've been. Now that we're all starting to know each other, everyone is drifting there after artshares, laughing and drinking wine. (But we don't have a corkscrew, so last night I had to poke the cork into the bottle to get us some red wine, which made it spray all over the wall behind the sink. Oh well.)

But I'm doing splendidly up here.

It's genius to have Sharon here. I'm going to make it happen every year. We're laughing so hard at tiny moments of absurdity that my stomach hurts most of the time. Lyn and Sharon and I have especially been laughing hard. I already knew, since I was sixteen years old, that Sharon can make me laugh at the slightest twitch. But it turns out that Lyn is just like us, laughing at all the little word slip-ups that come out of tired mouths. Don't ask me why "I like someone who can validate my cinnamon" is funny, or why we all howl when we call each other Anne, but boy do we laugh. We're just sitting in our rooms, nearly peeing our pants, every evening. Last night, Sharon laughed so hard as she was sitting on the edge of her bed that she catapulted herself backward and thunked her head on the little ledge at the head of it. (Don't ask why it's there. It's a weird place.) But after we found out she was all right, we went back to laughing.


And lord, it's beautiful here. Certain casts of light make me stop talking and stop moving and just gawk. The green humps of treed islands in the steel-grey water glimmer with movement and swaying branches. It does a body good to look out the window in the morning and see snow-capped mountains so close I can feel their breath upon me.

Plus, this is the fourth year I have taught here, so I know the kids well. And my classes are popular, so they're eager to be there. We laugh as we practice our walks to see how it feels to walk like our characters. Or talk excitedly about the joy of watching ink flow from our pens, as we create something out of nothing. I'm in heaven, really.

My reading the other night was a huge success. People walked up to me that evening, the next day, to tell me how moved they had been, how happy they were to hear what I wrote. And it was the lightest reading I have ever given. In the past three years, I read an urgent piece about September 11th, then the next year one about the start of the Iraq war, and last year one about my near-death experience after the car accident and how I live with death. Whew. This year, I gave my lightest reading yet. I read a piece about awareness and simply living in it, inspired by a letter from Berett, a camper here. And an essay I wrote about my father, for his birthday, a series of vignettes, in which I realized that he's the one who gave me art. (Perfect for camp, it turns out. And if you haven't already read these on the old blog, and don't know how to reach it, let me know, and I can send you copies.) They were both joyful, alive pieces, with no deep darkness. Light. Since I've stopped eating gluten, everything has felt lighter. Not just that I feel better, but my brain chemistry has changed. Nothing seems to faze me anymore. There's not that little nervous flutter at the bottom of my stomach, when approaching deadlines or doing my work. I'm just here. And everything in my life just feels easier, lighter, more at peace. And to my pleasant surprise, people were just as deeply moved by the light pieces as the ragged, traumatic ones. It felt good. I felt like I was at home.

And now, as I type in this dinky library, in my one period off in the day, Kari is practicing her cello upstairs. She plays for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and she just arrived last night. So Bach, played slowly, with a deep, rich tone, is filling the air as I write.

That's Sitka.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

 

belting bad songs in a minivan

There will be time for indolence and summer vacation later. But for now, I'm bombarded by sensory images, like the enormous mountain lined with green trees outside this window, and the shafts of golden sunlight falling upon its back. And I'm swamped with teaching classes I already adore. We're talking about how to write from an urgent place, how to think in images instead of declaiming sentences, the way we judge people, and funny words. This morning, my fiction class started describing strange characters they had seen on the streets, including a man who ties an alarm clock to his wrist with a long piece of twine. We laughed together, then stood up to walk around the library, to really notice how we walk. They're writing and laughing, supporting each other with applause and compliments. And today is only the third day of classes.

I never really rest here. There's too much to do. Kids to meet, Sharon to laugh with, biking through downtown Sitka while fording through tourists, nightly artshares in which I hear my fellow faculty members speak about their work and I am inspired, marking up of papers to do, classes to plan, walks to take, colleagues to share stories with, and breathing in this beautiful Sitka air. Whew. But I'm blissfully happy again. The staff is fairly different this year, and I worried at first that I wouldn't enjoy them as much. Pshaw, I say. Already, I love them. Tony, the hip-hop dancer from Philadelphia, is hilarious! (He's also an incredible dancer, articulate and sweet, even if he does look like a gangster.) Last night, after the artshare, we were all congregating in the kitchen-living room area of the crazy dorms, and we all started sharing stories about our classes. He's so damn funny that we were all screaming. At one point, he said, "I can't help it. I know it's beautiful up here, but sometimes the Philadelphia boy comes out in me. I was standing in front of a vending machine, trying to buy some soda. And this kid came up to me and asked if I had change for a five. I didn't, but when I opened my wallet to see, he saw how much money I had. He said, 'Oh, I know whose wallet I'm going to steal.' And I just said, 'I'll stab you.'" He had this complete deadpan when he talked about talking to the kid, and I just howled at the idea. Last night was like that. Every night is going to be like that. After artshare we gather together, a dozen or so of us, exhausted, intending to go to bed, but we just keep talking and riffing and laughing until we're all happy exhausted.

Last evening, Sharon, Lyn, Carol, and I drove to the big Seamart, "out at the end of the road," as the locals call it. (Officially, it's called Halibut Point Road, which may be even funnier.) We drove and drove, laughing, until we spotted it. The most beautiful parking lot in the world. This rather large grocery store (full of frozen Amy's dinners and gluten-free food for me!) is perched on the edge of the land. Beyond it lies glimmering grey water, shining fiercely where the sun hits it. Humps of green-grey islands sit squat among the water. And looming above it sits Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano with the top sheared off, its sloping sides grey-blue laced with white snow. And this is a grocery store? On the way home, we dug into the glove compartment of this minivan we were driving, donated to the camp by someone in the community, and found a tape: Secret Love. The cover is pure 80s, a man and woman in acid-washed jeans, leaning against a tree, staring into each other's eyes. (Can they actually see each other through their big hair?) We popped it in, of course, and sang all the way back to the dorms, belting, with all our fervor: "I'm all out of love. What am I without you?" And then breaking into giggles at the delight of it all.

And later we made up our own power ballad, based on something I said when we alighted from the minivan to sudden sun: "Wherever the sun shines through the rain, there's bound to be a rainbow." We might just have to perform it at an artshare some night.

Tonight, I'm giving a reading at the Naa'Kahidi hall, which is the gorgeous space where I read every year. I thought this year that I wasn't going to be nervous, but it happens every year now. This morning, I'm convinced that I've chosen the wrong essays, that they're cloying and didactic and no one else will understand them. I'm thinking I should switch, or maybe not do it at all. But I've been through this enough to know that I should probably calm down.

I'll let you know tomorrow.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

 

the old lady on the bike

I'm sitting in Stratton library, at these terribly old computers, typing away after my first class. Fiction, filled with lovely people, most of whom I have taught before. Finn, Anthea, Ardea, Aren, Tieri, Molly, Becca--these are my crew. And the wonderful new kids, who already feel familiar, because they are here, in Sitka. Glorious, grey-skied, dear old Sitka.

Some of my favorite teachers at camp, dear friends, are not here this year. And I'm still terribly sad. But all these new people? They're fine. I'm sure that I'll grow to love some of them by the end of the two weeks. There's Tony Danero, the hip-hop dancer from Philadelphia. Young, with a diamond earring in one ear, his hat cocked to the side, his sneakers hip and ready to go. He's teaching b-boying (break dancing, to those of us outside the community), sweet as pie, and I'm sure the kids are going to adore him. Karl is teaching strings. He's quiet and thoughtful, sensitive and open. A little overwhelmed by our wackiness, I think. But this morning he told me that he had a flying dream last night, so he's clearly already home. And of course, my dear friend Sharon, who is teaching Beverly's improv classes, and class in stand-up comedy. Oh my god, the kids are going to go crazy for her. And I'm in joyful bliss being able to show her around this place I love so well.

We're all staying at the Mt. Edgecumbe high school dorms, which were newly refinished this spring, making us the first residents. If you don't know where that is, we're on the other side of the bridge, on Japonski Island. Go past the bridge, take the first right, go through the grey concrete and gravel path of the construction sight, stop to gawk at the eagles soaring over the water, then walk up to the door. They look a little like army barracks. I have to say that right away. And of course, there are foibles. Clearly, it was a cheap construction. The floors are made of plasticized wood, and Dawn told us the first night that they buckle if you leave water spilled on them. So I'm walking around my room with pieces of toilet paper, frantically dabbing after I take a shower. The toilets, which are shared between two rooms, have a sucking loud flush like a tsunami. The first time I used mine, I thought I was going down in it. And when you're trying to sleep, you can hear the squelching roar around the building. And the kitchen has an enormous freezer, and a minuscule refrigerator. For twenty people. And I must have a refrigerator, because I can't eat at the cafeteria this year, with the celiac. (Oh darn. Last night's dinner was apparently breaded pork chops.) So I claimed a giant cooler at the first night's faculty dinner, and I have to fill it up with ice every morning and store my soy milk and hummus in there. But really, it's okay. The rooms are pretty enormous, with windows overlooking the harbor, and sturdy bunk beds. We have two closets each, and an enormous sink space in the room. And finally, it's much much much better than the nursing home. Nuff said.

(And right now, Roger's wife Jeanine is reading a book to Anja, Forrest, and Mina among the stacks, since there are no classes going on. And all the little children are giggling delightedly at the end of every page, stamping their feet in acclimation. You have to love that.)

Mojo's--one of my favorite places in Sikta, for its coffee, soups, and cinnamon rolls--is closed. No more. I walked by it, almost walked into it, did a double take, then did another one. Now, it's a resource center for education of young kids in the community? Or something. It's hard to make out exactly what it is, through the mess of papers and xerox machines. I'm so sad about it. But this morning, Sharon, Lyn (new photography teacher, great, one of my colleagues at Northwest, fierce and funny), and I went to the Back Door, which is owned by the same people who owned Mojo's. And they are now making the cinnamon rolls on Sundays. The doughy, wonderfully sticky cinnamon rolls. And the guy there made us coffee and sold Sharon rolls (not me anymore, one of the few bready foods I miss) before they were even officially open. Ah, Sitka.


Yesterday, I showed Sitka to Sharon. We came to the morning faculty meeting (Roger with his usual laconic grace, Scott with his usual bumbling. He tried to xerox a stack of flyers for everyone, but half of them turned out to be blank pages, and the other quarter were another memo. Oh well.), then strolled through campus. I showed her the cafeteria, but I haven't shown her the creepy huge photo of the boy on the wall. That's today. We walked through town, looking at the Ben Franklin and the tourist artist shops, and the Pioneer Home, and the natural foods store (wonderfully, full of food I can eat). And then we went back to the dorms, for a little rest, some lunch. Later, we took a fast walk back to town, back through campus (stopping for a moment to try and figure out the confusing xerox situation; as always, it's a nightmare), then into Totem Park. The eagles were calling to each other. The sun shone bright and clear, infusing all the leaves with an electric green. And the beautiful field, with the large totem in the middle, still felt sacred in solid sunlight. I could feel Sharon relaxing next to me. She's already hooked. And then we hoofed it back to town for dinner at Ludvigs. They didn't have any space, or time, but they let us sit at the bar, near the window, for an hour. We three ate warm artichoke salads, with French olives, manchego cheese, balsamic reduction, hot chili oil, and wild greens. Plus a good glass of Spanish wine. Gorgeous. And then we went to the welcoming ceremony for the camp, which this year happened under an enormous tent erected on the green field. The students gathered in growing excitement. And we all introduced ourselves, in suitable fashion, making everyone laugh, and loving it. Scott finished the introductions by giving the last instructions while doing a handstand. His wallet fell out of his pocket, Roger stole his credit card, and Scott crashed down on Roger's back.

Ah, we're at camp.

The other evening, as the light was starting to fade, Lyn, Sharon, and I were walking over the bridge. And we spotted this older lady, perhaps near 80, on her bike. Her back hunched, she wore a flowered brown top, and bright magenta lipstick. She smiled at us as she wheeled by, and we all waved. And then she continued pumping her legs, urgently, and with great lightness, and cycled back to her home. I just loved her.

And when I go to bed at night, I put on my eye mask, to help me sleep when it's not even dark out. But when I wake up in the morning, I find that I have taken it off in the middle of the night. Probably because I don't want to miss a moment of light.

That's Sitka today.

All my love,
Seymour

Friday, June 17, 2005

 

Sitka

I am in Sitka, as I write. I'm in Sitka. I'm going to have to repeat this to myself seven hundred times before it feels real. Sharon and Lyn (photography teacher, super cool) and I were walking back from town, after slurping milkshakes from the Harry Race pharmacy (I broke my no-dairy rule) and stopping in the health food store for gluten-free supplies, and looking into the Back Door (great soy lattes) and asking about Sunday cinnamon rolls (because Mojos is gone! What?!). And we looked up to see an enormous bald eagle, just above our heads, soaring in the golden light against the dark green trees, more powerful than us. He reached out his giant yellow talons, slowly, then descended, as though soaring, but downwards. Lyn had tears in her eyes, and I did too.

I love this place.

I feel like I'm in a different country, already. I finished writing my last evaluation at 8 am this morning, with no frenzy or panic. Just work. I'm now on summer vacation. But I don't even feel like I need to celebrate. I'm in Sitka. And the last day of school already feels like seven days ago.

The light outside the window right now looks like liquid gold.

I'm home.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

 

why seymour? (joyful should be obvious)

Now, the internet doesn't need one more loving, long-form rave about the brilliance of J.D. Salinger. Just know that the man's words are deeply woven into my life, my body. Francoise and I were talking about the first times we read Catcher in the Rye, she in halting English just new from France, and me just 17, having resisted reading it for years because Mark David Chapman had been carrying it under his arm when he shot John Lennon. It changed my life, entirely.

And all the lesser works, which I don't consider lesser, have moved me just as deeply. One quote from Seymour: An Introduction, has informed my entire writing career.

Seymour writes a letter to his brother, Buddy, telling him what questions he should listen to when he writes: "I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you'd remember before you ever sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself....Oh dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart."

I've been trying to follow this advice ever since I read it, nearly ten years ago. So this evening, spontaneously, I picked up my battered copy of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, and sat down on the couch to read, intending to start grading ten minutes later. It's an hour and a half later, the sun has set behind the Olympic mountains, and I still haven't started grading. No matter. I fell into the prose and felt connected again. With Salinger and Seymour and seminal experiences in my life sparked by their words.

And with my writing, and that secret self that can never be put into words.

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