I no doubt have the most blog entries about not writing enough blog entries. Of any blog except maybe a writer’s blog.

Is this a writer’s blog? Am I a writer?

NPR’s LifeKit posted an episode about ‘How to Write a Book’ that condensed the beneficial takeaways of a heap of writing guides, TED Talks, and one million self-flagellating writer’s journal entries of mine. One of those takeaways was that there are countless reasons we aren’t writing. But there’s only one thing that makes us writers.

Writing.

Not being published. Not a tenured position. Not brilliance. Not a project. Not a marketable pitch.

What makes me a writer is that I am writing.

It’s remarkable to me how profoundly I’ve missed that simple truth. It’s routine to add layer of layer of self-definition that inhibits me from the actual act of writing. To be clear-eyed about every obligation and opportunity that can become obstacles to actually putting words down.

It so powerful cuts through all of that to remind myself: the thing you do to be a writer… is to write.

So at the risk of once again turning this blog–supposedly a blog about teaching, about culture, about faith, about politics and society, about literary and visual arts–into a series of yearly motivational speeches to compel myself to actually write…

Here are some things I want to write about this week. They may never materialize. But I will be a writer this week, despite the anxiety pervading our family life, the neglected and overdue correspondences and calls with friends, the work tasks that continue to blare “overdue.”

-Pandemic superpowers: Some promise and perils of distance teaching for public school teachers

-Absorbing violence in BBC America’s Killing Eve and Netflix’s Extraction

-Public health officials as political actors who could pave a way to a stewardship society (Thoughts from watching Fauci and Gentefied.)

-Postcolonial Christian revisiting Narnia with my daughter

Ugly

Good Friday reflections during COVID-19 sheltering-in-place.

We missed our church’s Good Friday service on Zoom, which is hard for me. One of those important things for me. And I’ve been grateful to experience lots of significant moments of human contact and spiritual connection on Zoom. But it’s exactly the fact that everything happens on that channel, where my Zoom account has a default setting to “touch-up my appearance,” those same screens and devices, that led us away from the service tonight. We’re tired. Education, family check-ins, grocery shopping, dilly-dallying, urgently important messages, letters of pleading. All on the same screens.

Our own tiny Good Friday service consisted of a song, a reading, a moment of reflection. Given all the time on screens, the artificiality of that interface in which I keep squinting at the reality outside, of nurses showing up day after day in hospitals despite being quarantined from their kids, of families facing economic and emotional desperation even worse than their prior vulnerabilities, of blustering press conferences and a vast human toll of tragedy…. given all that time on screens, where appearances are so touched up and filtered, I was especially moved by this poetry:

“…no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…” (Isa 53.2b)

Struck always by the paradox of “Good” Friday. I know American Christianity is often debilitated by an obsession with appearances of cleanness, purity, appropriateness. Those illusions keep us away from places where God, who is not fooled by outward appearances, really hangs out. At worst, our disgust compels us to participate in the most hateful forms of dehumanizing activity, the scornful loathing of beings in God’s beautiful image that twists what’s good into what’s ugly.

That’s the perpetually startling thing about Good Friday, the unsettling provocation of Jesus’ crucifixion: God dwelt in ugly. Plenty of people have quipped or marveled that we took a Roman instrument of publicly-shaming torture and execution for rebels and brigands and turned it into pieces of 24 karat jewelry. I’ve mocked it too (even as I’ve tried to pass off as cool wearing some hemp cross or something.) It’s ugly and it’s supposed to be. That was not only the oppressor’s intent. In the Christian episteme, it was God’s as well.

But I’m second-guessing my own mockery now. Maybe making that symbol of death into a venerated object of beauty is profoundly beautiful, and I’m the ignorant lout for laughing it off. Someone somewhere with simpler and sincerer faith than mine brushes the gold cross on their necklace as their hands reach out to comfort the sick, to reassure the prisoner, to clean an other’s human waste. That bit of worn symbolism, by their faith, reminds them that God, yes God, shows God’s self most in this Ugly.

The literature that has always shocked and then changed me most… The films and shows that have been most compelling and often most stirring… The performances of philosophy, the essays, the speeches… They did not always stay in the Ugly forever, but they always, always went there. They often stayed there for longer than we were comfortable, most of us who would ogle for a while at the unfortunate man on the cross, and then wander away to think about happier and more comforting things.

Storyteller’s Yearning

Couldn’t stop laughing tonight as I tried to read a “Star Wars” 5-minute story to the kid to help her fall asleep. We are huddled together in one bed at a hotel, staying the night out of town to visit my brother and his soon-to-be-bride. I try to make Chewbacca’s Wookiee speech noises. It’s a miserable failure. But what makes me laugh uncontrollably is when my wife keeps trying to do her Wookiee sounds and insists how much more accurate her equally ridiculous moans are than mine. All three of us are in stitches.

My life consists of so many more moments like these than they have. I’m filling up much less of my time these days with late night anxieties and pressure to produce and procure. Much more of it is filled with bits of unforgettable, drawing pictures with my daughter, listening to kids as they work out their crazies, giving thought to a book I’m reading or a film I just watched.

I continue to teach graduate pre-teacher classes and to coach teachers. But I also find, at last, after so much striving, some space to breathe. And think.

And to write. I hope.

I need to tell stories. My daughter, thankfully, still not ten years old and very slowly approaching the adolescence around the corner, still wants to hear my stories. Still wants to make them up with me. And I find this hunger that’s been around for as long as I’ve been conscious to write and draw stories, bubbling up, looking to come out.

It’s been waiting, a very quiet but growing discontent with the busyness of my life. To be sure, what I’ve been busy with has been storyteller’s trades. Teaching, reading, preaching, writing, talking. I’m not laboring in any fields or lifting any shovels. There’s no pity deserved here for the worn and oppressed worker, longing to break free. I’ve had it good. I’ve lived my dreams.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do? Ten years ago, I think I felt some sense of that satisfaction, and then I started graduate school. Ten years later, after finishing that doctorate, after raising up the kid, after mom’s cancer and passing, after trying out near-academia and realizing I wanted something different… what now?

Here is where the laughter that brought my family peacefully to sleep brings me now to this late hour. I face the quiet, asking God what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to learn to tell stories, as my Teacher did. They are to be stories that tell the truth about who we are, as well as stories that imagine the truth we can’t see of who we are supposed to be.

With all the gifts I’ve been given, it’s the last I should do.

The Gap We’re Minding

Do yourself a favor and watch Minding the Gap, the documentary by Bing Liu about his skateboarding buddies from Rust Belt Illinois and their stepping into (and out of) adulthood. Your reasons for not watching this skateboarders’ documentary are exactly why you should watch this skateboarders’ documentary. It is about skateboarding, and it’s about friendship, love, race, class, masculinity, family, and violence.

It’s on Hulu right now, which is where I watched it with gratitude that the same subscription bringing us escapist sitcoms and NBA games also serves up some media that actually feels like a medium… a conduit between lives that I wouldn’t otherwise feel nearness and empathic connection with.

The thing everyone says about this film is that it’s about skateboarding but it’s not about skateboarding. I think there’s something to how we perceive skateboarding— particularly skateboarding that’s being filmed— that screams all the reasons certain segments of “us” don’t want to pay any attention to certain segments of “them.” Skateboarders, if you aren’t one, obnoxiously shred up ledges, fly through our same sidewalks and public spaces with reckless, child-threatening speed, and generally carry an affect of total disregard of you for the sake of their thrills. And when a camera is involved… oh, you better believe I’m not interested in hanging around with those guys and what they’re up to. I’ll be over here, protecting my daughter as she rides her bike.

It’s exactly because of that distance– the separation from our assumptions– that skateboarding itself is integral to this story’s power for us viewers on the other side. Because Bing Liu, the documentarian, cinematographer, fellow skater, and friend of subjects Kiere and Zack, is also able to gently show through his camera what they run from when they flee to their skateboards, why they might find such release from coasting on the open road or grinding the city or landing an inconceivable leap.

And what they skate from is the stuff of American lives in the mid-2010s, especially that part of the country that feels most distant from my West Coast, Silicon Valley surroundings. Economic insecurity. Generational violence. The sense of narrowing opportunities in post-industrial middle America.

For me, it was especially intriguing to meet Liu, who puts himself, his family troubles, and his mother in the documentary alongside the skating friends he grows up with and depicts. He is not voyeuristic about others’ pain. He is there as well, part of the painful subjects in question. But his documentarian’s tone is searching, compassionate, willing to probe uncomfortably but unwilling to look away at his subjects’ humanity, even as he does not shy from their dark sides. Liu renders them, and himself, with a wondrous kind of observer’s eye. It’s not static, it moves as the subjects move, and it is ready to for a crash. But it’s also ready for the bracing beauty of people coasting along, trying to find their way to peace, to wholeness, to the freedom of the wind.

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Instead of mountain walking up

I circulate a lake

this year my birthday quest ends in

a journey I can’t make

For once imagining my years

more behind me than before

I contemplate my daughter’s stay

Where I’m just a visitor

I opt to live with wiser stakes

In how I eat and live

Creative time and dancing nights

Determined to forgive

Days move fast, they barrel quick

And plunge toward a quick fate

I walk in circles, don’t look up,

And now I’m thirty-eight.

Displacement and Freedom

Mold and Moving

The last four months have been the most stressful of my life. It’s culminated in an October where we’ve had to move from the rental home that we’ve loved and our daughter’s grown up in. Mold. Parts of our family unit stopped being able to breathe at night and in the house. The scary lingering of mold spores meant we had to divest of much of our furniture and possessions. Not sure where to go, trying to reach a settlement with the owner while feeling very unsettled in ourselves, and worst of all, fearing that we had to say goodbye under sad circumstances to a house and area we had grown to love.

When we moved here, we were fleeing an underwater mortgage post-financial- and housing crisis. Stress had layered on stress and our family, new kid only a little more than a year, had to get out of our first beloved home, the one we owned in the town where we taught. This house was a refuge. Larger than we thought we could get, a rent that we could afford despite my graduate student’s poverty, walking distance from a great library and downtown, every bit a dream house for us. We could not imagine leaving it.

Suddenly we had no choice but to.

Instability and Schooling

Somewhere along the way of taking time off work, bleaching all the non-porous things we determined we could take with us, shuttling to and fro from my blessed father’s house far several towns away and our vacating house, we forgot to attend to my daughter’s second grade homework the way we normally did. She didn’t do great on a quiz. Didn’t do horrible, but didn’t do great, given all the instability. It was a reminder, just how this tiny instability– we are relatively well-off, and most importantly have very generous and resourced friends and family to hold us up and help us– could so drastically change a kid’s school experience. How much more those kids for whom ongoing instabilities compound their challenge week upon week, year upon year.

It makes me all the more awed and moved by the kids and families I’ve taught, whose “instability” became a norm. Separated by immigration policies. Captive to the criminal justice system. Shaken by violence. Tense with economic insecurity. And yet these kids, while stress ate their edges, did not lose their hearts, their hopefulness, their longing for actualization, their ambition to do good. Their families persisted too.

While we were unloading our home of furniture, a friend helped us locate a refugee family from Southeast Asia who was happy to receive some of our beds, shelves, and chairs. Their circumstances considerably different– our new rental equates to the size of maybe three of the four small homes their lived in, four full families, maybe five or six times the number of people in our little trio. The kids played outside, looked with curiosity at what we brought, clearly looked out for each other like family. They’d traversed the world and left behind all kinds of instability.

I thought about how much we own and how little it means. I thought a lot about what we really need to provide for our kids, and how much we fool ourselves about that.

Free

It’s been painful. But I realize something I’ve been pleading for desperately, for years, now has an opportunity for a pivot, a point of inflection. For years I’ve been caught up in an increasing and out-of-control accumulation and spending habit.

I don’t know much, but I know enough from other addicts of other things that you don’t shed your pathologies so easily. This remains an issue for me. For life.

But I’ve been given an opportunity to clear the decks. This weekend, I have to finish cleaning out the old house. Sell, donate, dump. We have a chance at a fresh start. I’m trying to carry into the new place a sense of that simplicity and freedom. We lack nothing. We’re free.

Vives allí

The other day, leisurely, we wandered into Books on B, a treasure if there ever was one, which we’d heard about and long wanted to visit: a real, live, brick and mortar book store.

Being an English teacher in Hayward since fifteen years ago, watching bookstores come and go, this was something precious. We had to buy something. All of us.

I remember the bookstore that used to be on B Street. You can still see the remainder of its old sign. I remember riding into there when EJ was very little, her on a trike with a handlebar I’d push, which somehow seemed acceptable at the time, to just ride in with a baby girl. We bought a pile of books, stuffed them into the rack on the back of her red bike, rode out. Felt like the last time.

During this summer, I’ve taught English Methods at Cal State East Bay, the Hayward hills, where EJ’s school is, right by the flatland areas where Elaine teaches and where the school’s community lives. (I work in Southwest Hayward.) Given the chance to assign a text to plan lesson around, I chose the first one I taught, thirteen or so years back, English 9, hoping to find something to pave the expanse between my kids and me.

I saw it there, at Books on B, but in translation. I want to get better at Spanish, to learn to speak without flinching at my sentences, to add subtlety to my replies when someone graces me with their comfort in Spanish.

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Reading The House on Mango Street, or La casa en Mango Street, with my frail and forgotten Spanish, is a teeny bit like living in those thirteen year old’s shoes when they sat in my class, unaware that their insecurity was deep but mine was old and wide and also gaping and hungry.

Somehow, again with Esperanza Cordero/Sandra CIsneros’ tender frankness, I’m entranced again.

“Una vez, cuando vivíamos en Loomis, pasó una monja de mi escuela y me vio juganda enfrente. La lavandería del piso bajo había sido cerrada con tablas arriba por un robo dos días antes, y la dueño habia pintado en la madera SÍ, ESTÁ ABIERTO, para no perder clientela.

“¿Dondé vives? preguntó.

“Allí, dije señalando arriba, al tercer piso.

“¿Vives allí?”

-Cisneros, traduzca por Poniatowska, La casa en Mango Street

That longing, those aspirations, that dissatisfaction, that restive desire that comes from the mix of shame and pride, those dreams. Esperanza says of her family/self, “éramos seis,” we are six. The distinctions blur and maintain at the same time, and the same will be true of her and this neighborhood.

And I start to feel it to be so with us three and Hayward.

Writing Lessons as I Dissertate

I once thought I was a decent writer. Then I tried to write my dissertation.

While I believe I can adapt to writing a variety of kinds of papers, this is the only kind of dissertation I can imagine writing. You want the work to stand for who you are and what you’ve learned, how you study and what you have to offer the world. I’m drawn to, and now I come from, qualitative research, social research, research into culture and human phenomena, research that attempts to speak alongside people and practitioners, that invites subjects to talk back to the research, that winds down unexpected paths and has to be reined back in. The description is thick, the theory is too, and the ambitions far outpace the funding, let alone the comfortable boundaries of positivist certainty.

Writing this dissertation has been a cruel slicing, again and again. It’s a necessary cutting process, cutting away until I make sense, until the pie is small enough to consume, until the writing is not a firehose that no reader has the patience for. I try to do justice to people I’ve spent hours, days, months with; try to do justice to a diversity that stays animated and irreducible in the varied kids I studied; try to be methodical, and reasoned, and balanced, and curious, and pragmatic. One paper cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Three things I take away as essential to my writing:

1. A community. As much as I want to hole away and face the solitary task, bearing my own cross for the writing choices I make, each time I’ve had a watershed revelation, a point of inflection in my slow toil towards the right decision, it came with an audience of incisive and generous peers. Foremost, my advisors. Sometimes, my wife. Often, my peers in writing and research groups, stretching to think my arcane thoughts with me, offering incisive questions and generous speculation. I still have to face the lonely keyboard myself, but my good ideas have all been birthed (or stolen? borrowed?) from contact with thinking partners, even if they were just a listening forum for me to clarify myself in front of, but often as a fount of fertile ideas and clarion thinking. And when the community motivates you by the intense quality of their own writing and work, it’s possible to get intimidated and feel inadequate, but impossible not to feel wiser for having spent time with them as thought partners.

2. Tools to “Notecard” My Ideas. I recently became a convert to Scrivener.  Before then, I was repeatedly falling apart under the weight of any revision, so that pieces disappeared into the ether or held on stubbornly to their shape and position, refusing to budge from their lodged positions, like recalcitrant homesteaders before my hurricane of rethinking. Now, not only can I not imagine writing without Scrivener, I am excited to create just because of the invitation to architecting ideas and stories that Scrivener’s tools affords me. Moving seamlessly between the “notecard” birds-eye view, where chunks can move as needed among each other, and the lost-in-the-sentences text view… it affords a wonderful executive control. I still have a lot to figure out how to use probably two-thirds of its functions. But even with what I’ve acquired, the tool has reshaped the user.

3. Forget it. I have to be able to forget it. I have to be able to let it go. I have to take naps. I have to walk away. I have to submit pieces, discontented as I might be. There’s always another pass I could do. Always another frontier of improvement. Always a better turn of phrase, a more complete reassessment of structure and rhetorics, of evidence and presentation. But I just have to forget it. I’ve been lost for weeks in paragraphs that ultimately wound up ruthlessly cut– and am still likely bargaining for more of that. I’ve given hours that have no count to analyses that might burn like fire in my mind, but they will bloat the final product, so they’re left in the memo that won’t fit in any chapter, the paper that might one day spin off, the faint hope of a future project or forum to see the light of day.

I’m not done yet, which I’m relieved for, to be honest. As relieved as I’ll feel to finally be done, I just know there are parts of this process that haven’t finished their work on me yet. I feel great insecurity about my writing, and the scary thing is, it’s not just my writing. It’s my voice. It’s my contribution. It’s great insecurity about my belonging in this work that I’ve been doing for years.

But that unbearable hopefulness must succumb as well to the ticking hands of time, and soon my deadlines will defy me and my accumulated wisdom, and I will scamper to submit My “Good Enough” Dissertation, submit it to my mentors who have ridden this writing rollercoaster a million times more than me, who will offer the loving shatterings that will return me gasping to these chapters. Somewhere out the other end, I have faith a better writer waits. He will laugh at my hand-wringing. He will forget that he earned who he is.

 

 

Mom, On the Other Side

It’s been more than three months since my mom passed away. Her struggle with cancer lasted four and a half years.
Sometimes, the most unexpected things will set off a memory that makes me sad again, shocked at the change, the disappearance of her from the plane of the living. Someone asks me how I’m doing, and I spin off some capsulated stories to render a fond memory, to illustrate how we’re mourning, to reassure that we’re healthily moving on, all appearances that I am fine and emotionally reconciled. Then, in another unguarded moment, the stranger next to me wiggles their finger on the table, I’m reminded of mom’s physical tics in her last months when she was worn thin, hair grayed, not the same mentally, and then a deep sadness and longing for her sets over me, pulling my guts to the ground. I realize mom doesn’t breathe this air anymore, and the thought is still a vague shock.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for my dad, who is still living in the house she lived in, who cared for her with unfathomable intensity in the last year and a half. I wonder if he rounds the corner to the dining room and remembers again the chores and labors that must have broken his heart, happy as he was to do them, all the daily compounding signals that his wife for life was losing her functions. They’d been married a dozen years longer than his life before her; adulthood, America, aging, all must’ve been impossible to imagine without her. The impossible to imagine is now a daily reality, which must saddle days with a strange un-reality.
That’s what it feels that her physical existence is ashes in an urn in a niche in a wall on a hill in a cemetery. A strange un-reality. When she was sick, during the long bout, from the first day she told me on the phone about the cancer to the last days by her side, I would occasionally slip into a moment of recognition, like an alternate universe, where she was no more. I didn’t want to fear that thought, much as I didn’t want to entertain it. The thought of her smile not flickering over her face, my mother’s arms no longer available for an embrace, the mirror I saw in her zest and anxieties, her hungers and her fondness. When that disappearing wasn’t real yet, just the thought of it would govern me, govern my thinking so that I lived in the now (then) differently. I’d let the thought of my mom’s future passing reorient my present, and watch as subtly things realigned themselves to an ordering that felt more right. Important things first. Cherishing the time. Forgetful about the inconsequential. First things first.
I suppose that over the four years, I let that not-yet-reality in often enough that it changed me and changed my faith. The unknown end of her life, just over the horizon, kept me marching differently. I slacked on several rat races, sharply aware that I would be horrified to look back and to have spent my emotional energy on a career and left none for my mother who raised me. Or for that matter, for my wife and daughter who love me. Slipping into that unavoidable future, like a parallel world, would jolt me into a different way of being in this one. The clock was ticking, and so, all clocks ticked louder. With that ticking time, yes, anxiety. But also, perspective.
Now, it’s a strange new discovery to be on the other side of that great divide. Now, the strange un-reality is the present-ness of her no longer being here, the fact that it’s true and has come to pass. I am on a plane, and by habit, I think of mom when I’m on a plane. Informing her I’ve landed. Talking to her next time about this airline’s amenities, that airport’s newness, this luggage’s efficiency. I’m used to the tray tables reminding me of sitting beside her on a plane, eating her peanuts, putting my legs on her lap as I laid down. The un-reality is that none of those are supposed to happen on this plane of existence anymore. It’s so strange.
So now, just as her last years gave me a horizon of the future to orient my eyes for the present, so her passing gives me a horizon of eternity to orient my walk into the future. Faith no longer just involves prospects for the future, but almost like geographies of the present. In my egocentrism, faith used to entail a belief in future justice, future vindication, future hope. Yes, that’s still the case. And yes, in the past my faith also involved an imagination of angels singing and God in the present, acting and grieving.
But now, faith also involves where my mom is. “Over there.” Not just gone. Over there where we go, where we are held in God’s hands, where we wait. In the present, right now, the one whose hands wiggled, the soul behind those eyes that wrinkled into a smile, the person who is not just those ashes in that urn in that niche. That person, my faith says, in a way that is more real than I have ever had to grasp it, is in a real place, a place as real as New York where we’re landing now, a place as real as California where I just left. The geography of faith that isn’t just about our future reorienting our present, but the present “elsewhere” that comes to us in a new nearness.
In times when technology brings new nearnesses to our attention, somehow we easily escape death, imagining these tools and words in them to exist in perpetuity. The photographs I ran across of Mom all the time aren’t her continued existence, they’re just a repository of memories that flit into my consciousness again, calling up the love and regard she wished so much she could have received more of from me when she lived. They are not who she is now. Not where she lives.
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Where she lives is Somewhere, and if she is there now, then this Here is not the same as I thought it was before.

Crawling to the Finish Line

No, I have not been a very impactful, focused scholar.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my advisors and colleagues, who have carried me every step of the way, I am nearing the end of these eight years of my PhD program. Early in my program, I envisioned myself racing across this finish line, head held high. Instead, I find myself scrambling, crawling. Ashamed I didn’t accomplish more for my years in academia so far. Still struggling with the writing and study, the reviewing and revising, the presenting and attending that should be the schedule of a scholarly life.

The reasons are many and those who know me have heard them plenty, even dutifully repeat them back to me when I confess this embarrassment.

But I hope this last Lenten season has represented a pivot for me, an inflection point, when my halfway presence (“half” is being too generous) as a scholar stops being my apology and starts being my identity. I’ve not earned the grants and won the fellowships. But I’ve been granted chances to struggle beside teachers, to await the end beside my mom, to read to children, to enjoy the fellowship of a spiritual family. I’ve not attended the association meetings and submitted for the conferences. But I hope I’ve associated with the unattended and submitted myself to the inconvenient. I have been a poor colleague and co-researcher, which is what I regret the most. But I have remained richly curious and the glad beneficiary of others’ intellectual fruitfulness.

So stop apologizing, Paul. You didn’t do all the scholar things because you were doing the teacher things, the father things, the son things, the husband things, the follower things, the cultural worker things, the part-of-a-community-of-faith things.

Whatever that means for my academic prospects, I am coming to terms that it matters less to me than doing some good in schools, serving in the niche I can to enrich our literacy and language learning for life, love, and liberation.

I do feel like I’m crawling to the finish line. But it’s a good vantage point from here on the ground, by this dust and these feet.