Death and Karma

Some years ago, a lovely new writer appeared one Saturday at the wooden kitchen table of our host’s home where we met regularly for critique group. A woman with long, blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes, who shared that she’d almost drowned.

Being washed into the Pacific undercurrent and sinking down, down, down, in this near death experience, she began to relive certain events in her life, but not from her point of view. She became her mother dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter; she landed in her lover torn to shreds and heartbroken.

She relived the emotions of those whom she had caused pain.

What a gift! Or, maybe, a curse.

This inspired me to wonder if we die the way we live. Death and karma. Was that lovely woman a selfish, thoughtless human, and her experience was to feel that pain she’d caused others?

If you’re a horrible human being, do you die a slow painful death? If you allowed kittens to suffocate, do you die gasping for breath?

I know someone who caused a lot of pain to others and he developed a disorder, later in life, in which every little bump would bruise and swell in painful edemas. A callous could glow into an infection. He spent the last years of his life in more pain that he might of caused.

However, I know plenty of lovely humans who have died in unfavorable circumstances. Certainly, that wasn’t karma.

I choose to move through this life causing as little pain and unhappiness as possible.

But it’s not because of the fear of death. It’s not even the fear of karma. There is so much pain and vexation in this world already – I don’t need to add any more to anyone’s life. I’d rather add laughter, happiness, joy. Not that I always succeed. This still is life.

I remember that woman from our critique group, her story, her presence because she yelled at me. Upon reading my story, the group began to respond. She became outraged and began gesticulating wildly. “You can’t write this. This will hurt people. You will pay for this. You can’t write this.”

I reflected on this and asked the group – after she was removed by our host – does my story lack empathy?

I attempt to create characters and stories that express the range of human emotions, the best of which teeter on the axis of sympathy and empathy. My writing partners and my readers believe I’ve achieved that.

I believe in karma in some sense. I believe what we put out there, we receive back in one way or another. Maybe death is random. Maybe not.

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The Crier is about a world where empathy is questionable. It appears a single Kindle Story and it appears in How to Throw a Psychic a Surprise Party.

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Thank you for reading. Be well.

Success Stories

I didn’t grow up with a lot of positive role models. There were not many (if any) people in our neighborhood who were looked up to as success stories.

I can see my neighbors, even now, from the concrete steps of our four unit blond brick building on S*** Avenue in Collinwood. Across the street, Francis. She had Lucille Ball red hair and sat on her porch from 9am to 9pm, beer in hand. Next door, a single mother who worked at a bar and brought work home with her – in all sorts of ways. Next to her, a retired old man who sat across from Francis with his own beer in hand. His wife, Goldie, was a sweet woman whose toes twisted around one another, feet mangled, she said from twenty years of high heeled waitressing. On the other side, a retired railroad worker, no patio, so he sat in his kitchen hand wrapped around a cold beer.

There were bars on every corner. T & M’s could be seen from the porch. Strangers and neighbors stumbling out with the music pouring onto the street.

The teenagers went to high school, married the boyfriends who beat them, and set up house on the next block. A few got away, I’m sure. But I can list many more who died young or ended up in prison. My teenage crushes are dead now. One was shot in the head, the other crushed under the wheels of a truck. I never got into drugs, thought those who smoked and drank acted silly, stupidly, dangerously. Girlfriends recall tales of waking up half naked, uncertain if anything happened. That wasn’t the memory – or lack of memory – I wanted.

Mostly, I felt limited. I felt outcast. I didn’t seem to belong with any particular crowd or group or gang. I wanted something more, something different, and I didn’t know where to turn. Getting out and getting away seemed the only answer for me. I didn’t know what might meet me beyond the borders of the familiar, but there was no safety and no options in the familiar.

Someone once said – it was very brave of you to travel across country on your own and start over alone. I hadn’t considered it was “brave.” I’d believed it was my only choice, my only chance. She offered, the world is a dangerous place for a young woman to do such a thing. Sometimes home is a dangerous place. Limiting yourself is dangerous. Not fulfilling your potential is dangerous. Living a life in which you’re completely unhappy is dangerous. Sometimes, saving yourself, however scary the unknown is, is your only choice.

 

Mr. Rogers didn’t say anything, he acted.

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Just because someone isn’t doing what you think they should be doing, doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything.

Love.

 

Citizens

Imagine going to a therapist who works out of her home. She tells you to use the side entrance, through the gate. But the gate is locked, so you go to the front door and knock.

The therapist, who specializes in trauma, whips open the door and screams in your face “GET AWAY FROM MY HOUSE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY YARD?”

If you’re seeking a therapist with a specialty in trauma counseling, it’s because you’ve experienced trauma.

How do you react?

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Maybe part of that trauma is that you’ve been ignored your whole life, described as a criminal, pulled over and searched for no particular reason. When you walk by, people pull their purses a little closer. People say things to you that seem aggressive, yet they smile while they do it.

If you haven’t experienced these traumas, then perhaps you react. Ask the woman what her problem is? Ask her if she speaks to all her patients like this? Maybe you curse her out. And I’m definitely guessing, you don’t go in and pay her exorbitant fees.

But if you have experienced microaggressions and this is maybe just the third one that day, and it’s still early, you go in.

It’s not one black man who was brutalized by cops that hurts and angers large sections of our population. It’s the thousand little microaggressions that happen on a daily basis and it’s repeated brutality by those who should be setting an example in our society which makes it seem okay to other parts of our population. Further, it is those in charge who seem to shrug and say, oops, as if a cop didn’t just kill someone by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes, but rather ran a stop sign or some other insignificant infraction.

Claudia Rankine describes hundreds of microaggressions perpetrated by colleagues, “friends,” strangers, and society. Citizen: An American Lyric is a book of poetry. I saw it enacted as a play at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles some time ago – and it made and left an impression.

I’ve used it in nearly every literature class since. It is a work of art.

Articles, excerpts, and videos:

New Yorker

An Excerpt from the book Poets.Org

The New York Times

You are In the Dark

From Granta 

Stop and Frisk – video

More from Youtube

 

Silent, Not Silent

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I was going to say I’ve been largely silent in the last weeks, a post here and there, but I don’t want my lack of posting to be confused with silence about what is happening in the world these days.

I am left speechless at the horror of this year, of this last month, of these last days. But not silent. Not neutral.

To compound the coronavirus horrors, my only refuge – as with all of you – my house was invaded, my dog got skunked and brought the smell into the house.

Stay with me here….  this grows.

If you are unfamiliar with the smell save for passing a kill on a country road, the smell leaches into everything in a matter of moments. It’s not a matter of opening the windows to release the odor. The smell is thick, it has claws. It sticks around. Even with fans going, windows open, it lingers in corners.

The spray is an oil type substance that is embedded into my dog’s fur. The skunking is meant to do harm; therefore, it causes burning of the eyes, rash on the skin, nausea. And it is not easily scrubbed out.

I don’t only mean the dog. I was sick for days.

Now, let’s add to that a passing of a friend.

Layer that with the death of George Floyd. This hurts me because it hurts my friends, my students, my family. The brutality Floyd experienced is the brutality people of color experience EVERY DAY!

Top it with the protests, which would have been peaceful except for the agitators who want to use the protests as a front, to cause problems, and commit crimes.

So add looting and violence, the armed national guards, police, and curfews.

Do not take my silence as a neutral position. I am horrified.

Racism is that skunking. It is meant to do harm. It is an odor not released by opening a window. Racism is a stink that has claws, it has bite. It is a sickening, stinging, lingering presence. And it needs to be scrubbed out of the system entirely.

And the scrubbing needs to begin at the top.

 

I am an educator. I teach. One of the classes I have taught is The History of African American Literature. For the next few weeks, my posts will center around what I have learned and what I teach my students about communication, history, and growth.

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Sending loving and healing thoughts to all.

 

What Your Character Reads

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You’ll remember reading some great stories in which the character is reading or recommended a book to read to another.

Authors do not peel off the list carelessly, especially if it’s a single book, author, or scene. These are chosen carefully to reveal something specific about the character, to complicate the story, or to foreshadow what is to come.

There are numerous books which mention other books or authors; however, I’ll example Charity, a short story by Charles Baxter.

In one scene a drug dealer has Othello open to Act 3. It’s unclear if the dealer is actually reading – he’s sitting in a dimly lit bar, running his finger down the page; however, the main character offers, “the handkerchief. And Iago” to identify the scene and illuminate the foreshadowing.

The story of Othello, and more specifically the scene, involves Iago as the master of a manipulation using the handkerchief as evidence of a betrayal.

This is not by some accident that Baxter chose the story and the scene. He didn’t grab at something out of the blue because he needed the dealer to be reading at a bar. He chose to use a scene from another classic text to complicate and foreshadow what is to come. However, the question becomes how does it layer the story of Charity?

I won’t tell you, but I highly recommend reading the story.

In one story, I had a character reading a book by Betty White. The book is fictional, but I wanted the character to be seeking an idea of normalcy as far from herself as I could get.

Presently, I’m working on a novel. One of the characters is rather shallow and cares about the appearance of things more than anything else. Another character is describing the home and I needed a coffee table book to reflect the first. I felt he would choose a book which matched the decor, but also shows him as worldly. I chose National Geographic’s Stunning Photography. He’s never even cracked the spine, he just wanted something beautiful to match the blue of his curtains and make him look good to his guests. I may change it, but right now I think it works.

Give thought to the choices in your work, even if it’s a book sitting on a table, passing from one character or another, or in a window. It’ll layer your work, giving more depth to your characters and the story.

 

Does pain inspire creativity?

When I was young, I knew many people attempting to inspire creativity by causing themselves pain. They used drugs, alcohol, fought, caused drama, got in to trouble and they’d say – this is what it takes to create good writing, music, art.

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The tortured artist effect – it takes agony to create good work.

I recall one writer who drank and cheated and lied and ended up homeless, rejected, lost. He said – it makes for good stories.

I decided, quite young, that life was painful enough than to dive in head first to any more misery.

But then as I lay in bed a few nights ago with the pain of the last few months growing, the losses, the fears, the absence of loved ones, and others looking for a scapegoat for their own pain, I succumbed to a wave of agony.

The way I have handled anything challenging in my life is to write it out. So – I wrote.

Does that mean, then, that torment is good for writing?

I do write almost every day, pain or no  pain.

Maybe it’s not about torture inspiring art; however, my pain came out in poetry, which I rarely write on a regular basis.

Creatives, writers, artists, musicians write as a way to work out the agony and perhaps it just seems that pain inspires art.

Others come to the mistaken belief that they need to place themselves in harms’ way in order to create.

The guy I mentioned earlier – who caused himself and others a lot of pain – never did become the writer he wanted/thought he wanted to be. I think he fell into far too much misery to pull himself out. It stunted his talent and desire.

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The Crier – by the way – is about people who go to extremes to avoid pain.

Maximum Flow

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I had a professor who hated the word “flow.” We were not allowed to say it in class and when someone new to this prof or class would say it, we would all turn to the instructor as she launched into a near spasm of “O”ing her lips, rolling her eyes, and throwing her head back in dramatic fashion.

Sometimes she wouldn’t verbalize to the newbie, so they would glance around wondering if she needed a medic, then someone would lean over and explain to the student, “we don’t use that word.”

BUT WHY NOT?

Well, I don’t know what her issues were; she had A LOT of them.

As I launched into my own new flow of the week, I thought there is no better word for it.

A river flows, it twists and bends and moves around boulders, tree trunks, rolls over rocks or sticks and, when it hits a new blockage, it flows around or under or over. That’s what writing feels like when it’s going well. You’re in a rhythm and you’re moving and it feels like nothing can stop you!

I feel like when you’re in the flow – other ideas come; you’re all juiced up, moving at maximum speed, and it paves way for and welcomes fresh and new streams of thought.

It’s important not to lose that feeling. Write until you can write no more and then you can’t wait to come back to it. And the sooner you jump right in again, the sooner the flow resumes.

When you stop, the longer you stop for, you risk becoming stagnant. Just like a river. It takes more effort to get restarted, to push away the junk that has gathered and blocked the movement.

 

Resolve, Rambling Roads, and Roses

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It’s past midnight. I’m up late. I’ve spent the last however many hours writing after a particularly good day.

Why was it good? I’m not sure. I didn’t watch the news. The sun was out. My roses are blooming. I helped someone – at least I hope I did.

I read something about women and impact. [I know this seems like it’s rambling, but it’s going somewhere – don’t all rambling roads lead someplace interesting?]

Today was a mix of everything. My past, my future, my desire to make a difference, and my predilection to learn new things and gain a great understanding of myself and the world around me.

I had a hard childhood. But it made me strong in order to confront the things I’ve had to face, the things I may still encounter. I have purpose. Those two things go together – challenges construct strength which in turn creates a compelling purpose in life.

That strength has left me at a disadvantage in a single way – I don’t know how to ask for help. And sometimes I come off as someone who has it all under control in an off putting way.

People like to see others fail because we all do at one point or another and that misstep humanizes us. Weakness makes us human. So if we don’t reveal weakness, we lose credibility, authenticity.

However, where I grew up, if you showed weakness, you were bully bait.

So I have a hard time reaching out. I admire people who are strong, but can still ask for assistance. I’m still working on that balance.

It is my purpose to help others. To make an impact. The only way I’ve ever known how to do that was through writing.

So, I’m up late writing. Trying to make an impact.

Sometimes rambling roads fold over on themselves, touch and twist away, then even end where they began. It was a good day. And I am thankful for all that has passed.

 

Your Journal is Important, Especially Now

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Journaling allows us to process our daily lives. It helps us see patterns that we are taking part in physically and mentally, and most importantly it allows release.

 

Don’t hold back in journaling. These are your private thoughts and they need voicing and validation. No one ever needs to read them – or you can turn them into a creative efforts.  Some of my students have begun painting, writing, or even baking to express their creative outlets.

 

During this time, my writer friends and I are journaling to keep track of an important time in history. Maybe these will be records of human thoughts and feelings during a very difficult time in our society – much like The Diary of Anne Frank.

 

Some are doing dream journals as well.

 

In a few years, this will be forgotten, swept under the rug, or rebranded. Our society, our children, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will need real life, first person examples of what was happening internally and externally.

 

I teach topics that deal with slavery, suffrage, native American relocation stories. We read first person accounts. These allow my students to understand critical happenings in our society not from our history books who are written by the victors or the historians recording political acts, but by the people who went through and dealt with racism, oppression, and death our history has reaped on individuals.

 

Journaling seems more important now than it ever has before.

 

It can be anything you want it to be, look like anything you want it to look like. Let it be private and burn it later. Or share it.