Every Time He Shakes His Tail

I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.

Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.

For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.

My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.

Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.

So, stalemate.

In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.

But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.

So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.

“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.

“No.”

“She just wants to talk to you.”

I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.

Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.

It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.

His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”

I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.

Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.

A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote:  to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses;  to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.

The vote never happened.

The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.

My grade remained a B.

“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.

I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.

“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”

And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.

Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.

Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.

I took the phone call from Jeanne.

I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.

In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.

The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.

Me, too.

I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”

Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”

That, I know to be true.

Sail More, Land Less

Life ajumble, presented in pieces disordered, or at least in an array I have yet to understand. It’s up to me to find what I need. Availability is not the issue. It’s awareness, a matter of rearranging, turning round each piece.

How else perspective, for none of the sides are the same.

I find this in writing as well. Not every story fits a frame, a structure, and some pieces remain snippets but none are without worth. There is no lack unless I write it.

All of this is to say I’m back among my pirates, again. It’s a big story, beyond an essay and larger than a novella. It’s a novel, I am not a novelist, and that doesn’t matter.

So, why go there?

No story is ever wasted, not on me, anyway. What else is life other than stories and questions about stories, which often result in yet more stories. It’s how we live.

A trip to a pirate ship rearranges the pieces of my mind, it’s a new view, but not for long as whether it’s 1865 or 2018, the mandala of human nature is only so varied and quite repetitive.

A dip into the past puts me in the present in a way I never am. The questions I bring from 2018 are outmoded in 1865. How can that be?

The irony of life ajumble, finding new perspective in the past for the present. Maybe that is knowing history. I doubt that it matters how I find more relevance in 1865 than in 2018.

It is like reaching into the future to find my limitations, my biases, and yes, my prejudices, all of which are alive and well on a pirate ship, as I write wrongs that seem to know no death.

It is with a fervor I do not live, disappointing but true. Sometimes I have to stay on the pirate ship to accept truths about myself. Lately, I’ve been there a lot, my questions insufficient, but the lives of the pirates lead me to new ones.

They have few possessions and what they treasure is buried on land, where they cannot stay, no matter how they try. Afloat on the seven seas, they are in constant danger of losing their lives but they never do. It is only on terra firma they die. It lies in wait.

Almost obviously, the working title of this pirate story is “Fish on Land,” as they fly any flag that will get them into a port but with boots on the ground, they get lost no matter how good their map or how well thought out their mission. So often, some die trying to return to the safety of the sea.

That’s how it seems so far. I don’t know all of the pirate perspectives yet, not having looked round or even met all the characters but being human is to know that “it’s always something,” especially in fiction, the world must turn and twist.

Life ajumble, so many pieces, each a unique perspective, more stories than a single lifetime affords. It matters not the vessel, just that we sail and maybe, land less.

It’s Not “A Thing” Unless…

I have been living beyond my means, again, which means a lull in life, writing becalmed. I’m shipwrecked, dogged daily by whether to stay with the ship, relive the storm that has passed, or let it go.

I know that life is one experience after another, including shipwrecks. When aground, why not explore where I am rather than reliving the wreck. I get that now, at almost 66. “It’s not a thing” unless I make it one.

I cannot claim this brilliance as my own. This sliver of light belongs to a trusted friend, cheerful in all weathers, especially during my storms. She’s my lighthouse.

I set to salvage operations.

Most of my writing is beyond saving, easily recycled. Momentarily, I anguish over the gap between blog posts, once an ego favorite for shaming. I made it “a thing” for years.

What seems salvageable are pieces of a pirate story, although grounded in place rather than plot–as always–as well, a pitch for a resistance essay that is all thought and not yet a word.

Neither is yet a place on a map still to be drawn.

I’m fascinated at the idea of writing a pirate story, which does not mean it will end up being a pirate story. I am not good at writing fiction. I know that. For years, every time I failed it became “a thing,” a true tempest. Shipwreck after shipwreck.

And then it wasn’t “a thing” anymore. I stopped reliving the storm and discovered that my elaborate exploration of setting was its own story, and the map began to reveal its treasures.

Not all my expeditions take place on the screen. Sometimes, I visit actual lands, like Spanish Hole, where some 500 years ago at least one exploration for gold turned into a quest for survival.

Familiar story, if not exactly about pirates, but who has not sought one treasure only to find another? Is that a pirate story?

Where the St. Marks River flows into the Gulf of Mexico is Spanish Hole, its secrets intact. And that is its own kind of treasure, too. Like writing a pirate story. Who knows what it may not reveal.

As I was writing this post my dad sent me photos, as he often does. This one is from his cabin on Treasure Island. And I realized, I had set sail.

It is not as if a life lens comes with a ready-made life. It’s just a lens.

Thanks, Leonard Huber, for the view. ❤

The Look of Failure

Failure is its own kind of boomerang, and the sooner taken in hand the better for everyone. I know this, which is not to say that is what I do.

I’ve learned that to reach for failure is to seize the spectacular. I avoid it for as long as possible. I stay in step with my ego as it tells me, quite forcefully: “Just keep at it. It will work.”

All the while my body sends signal after signal to stop: ”This is not working. Let it go.”

My heart opens to failure as my ego flashes a neon sign: “Don’t screw this up.”  Of course, I already have. I am too busy to hear the sound of failure.

Ever patient, my heart shows me a seat to the spectacular while my ego offers only the slough of despond.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves

over and over to annihilation

can that which is indestructible

be found in us.

Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart

Exactly.

This is a failure I feel in my bones, literally, and my heart oozes with pain. I did visit the shores of the slough of despond momentarily, too tired to indulge in labels and finger-pointing, mostly at myself.

After spending the last 24 hours alternating between sleep and the meditative state, I hold failure’s boomerang in hand, feeling anything but spectacular. Still, I stay in my seat.

When things fall apart, it is not an easy view. Yet, the heart is compassionate and knows nothing is revealed in angst. That is a scene best left on the cutting room floor.

Best to begin from the beginning.

This past week, I signed on for a writing gig that may have been possible back in the day–eight or nine years ago, maybe longer.

Yet even with better health and greater stamina, it would have been challenging, as I did not have sufficient background. I had to spend too much time researching, which did not leave me enough time to write.

I kept working harder but not smarter. If I had, I would have heard the sound of failure.

I was fortunate to have a thoughtful and compassionate editor who recognized my limitations and as much as she helped me, there was no meeting the deadline.

It was up to me–and no one else–to say, “I cannot do this.” I waited too long and now others must scramble to complete my work, in addition to their own. My concern for failure was greater than my consideration for my colleagues.

Therein lies most of my pain but what is done is done. To anguish over what cannot be changed benefits no one. That is not admitting failure. That is hopelessness.

KMHuberImage; Mudhen; St. Mark's Refuge; Northern FL

To admit failure is to fall apart. Only in such moments does forgiveness reveal itself. I suppose that doesn’t seem spectacular—maybe I misuse the word–yet to sit in the seat of self reveals the human drama, and I know of no more breathtaking experience.

Only the heart can put on such a spectacular show, absorbing the annihilation that failure feels without judgment or looking through the colored lens of blame.

Failure reveals more than a wrinkled reflection; it is beyond the reach of any selfie filter. It is not a gloss. A reflection ripples with the tide or the wind, never providing more than a moment’s glance.

It is the mirror of the heart that reveals all failure, each one its own crack, healed in its own time. Forgiveness is the glue and knows no deadline only the steady beat of renewal. And that is indestructible. To me, spectacular.

No Ground Beneath My Feet

I wonder how many times letting go is accepting what has already gone.

When reading a book, I have been known to pause at the end of a chapter. I like to sit with good writing and let it wash over me. Sometimes, the better the writing, the longer it takes me to finish a book, as sentence after sentence illuminates.

This past week has been one of letting go, recognizing that a beacon now shines in another direction. It no longer lights my path, and I pause in acceptance and gratitude but also in love and loss.

I change my routine and walk away from the written word. I call a good friend and say, “Let’s have coffee.”

We did, which was stimulating for my mind-body and lasted into the evening. I do not remember the last time I drank a cup of coffee, much less two.

I was awake most of the night but this brief foray into the world was not one I regret. All day long, there were smiles and no doubt a bit of giddiness. And when this moment revisits, it will wash over gently in remembrance.

Not all the week’s memories will be so kind but that is also the life experience. I continue to work with a group of women committed to a better world through the written word—we wrote a book together–through our resistance, we join a larger grassroots movement. That path is not without its obstacles.

There is so much light in this group it sometimes blinds me–I step back–before I can once again bathe in the light that is these women. Here, I know wonder again, the kindness of human beings and of what they are capable–so much good, which is so easy to forget.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves

over and over to annihilation

can that which is indestructible

be found in us.

Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart

This quotation is from a sign that Chödrön had on her wall before she embraced Buddhism in any form. She said it was her first inkling to the core of Buddhist teaching.

It hurts when things fall apart but in letting go— experiencing groundlessness–there is at the very least familiarity if not comfort. For me, the more I open myself to the impermanence that is life– exposing myself to the annihilation— the less I struggle with accepting there is no ground beneath my feet.

Groundlessness is never all dark. Always, there is light, be it a sliver or a beacon, and I immerse myself in it. I know it will not stay and that when it leaves, I will discover something I did not know previously.

And on mornings like these when I know the light is already gone— some lights are that bright— my heart is not heavy but joyful. Yes, there are tears– for light is always love–sometimes a great one. I know only gratitude in that it lit my path for a mere moment.

It will live on in the caverns of my heart, this light, for there are still shadows that reside there. Each time such a light crosses my path, my heart opens just a bit more to the world around me, no matter how difficult a moment.

I now appreciate that the bodhisattva’s greatest power is compassion. My practice is limited, of course, but I know of no other that can dismantle fear, perhaps even crack open a heart or not.

Compassion extended may be felt in days yet to come.That is not for me to know nor should it be.

Rather, I return to the wisdom of the written word. This time, May Sarton’s “loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” Of all this past week brought me, it was not poverty of self.

As I told my friend yesterday, it is Zen that opens me to my life. I’m not afraid, which is not to say I am fearless. My knees wobble and threaten to buckle from time to time.

I anticipate less. Often, I forget about expectations altogether so when fear comes calling, I respect its appearance of power but recognize its façade. And that is the result of only a sliver of light in my heart.

Imagine a heart full of light–not a shadow to be found–when risk and grace are intertwined as one and the bud bursts into bloom–one bright, shining moment.

Always a Nasty Woman

I scroll screens by night and have been since November 8, 2016. It is how I first learned of the Nasty Women Project.

Arguably, many believe I am and have been a nasty woman all my life–in every sense of the term–I’m not disputing that. 😉 I am also a citizen in a republic whose duty is to be vigilant but I admit to complacency.

I’m on duty now. That’s all I can do anything about.

I contact members of Congress–someday, maybe I’ll be able to attend a town hall meeting—until then, I read newspapers and books like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words and Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.

#TheResistance is not about going back–that world is gone–it is about working through this moment. Yet, the past is not without its information.

Sometime around last Christmas, editor-in-chief Erin Passons put out a submissions call for a book she wanted to publish March 1–an anthology about the effects of November 8, the night the world changed.

I knew I would submit a piece but I had no idea my essay would begin 18 years ago–1998–on the day of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Then, I was a middle-aged lesbian living in Wyoming. I was angry and too naïve to be afraid. I believed hate would not win but on that day, it did.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church gained worldwide attention for their protest of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. I joined others in holding up my umbrella to block the signs of Matt in hell and God hates fags.

Our umbrellas sagged under the weight of snowflakes. I looked into the eyes of a young man from Westboro and found the hollowness of hate. He had won.

These 18–now 19 years later–I know winning is not when the heart is hollow.

My essay, “Confessions of a Closet Activist,” appears in the Nasty Women Project: Voices from the Resistance, Volume 1. 80 women, 80 stories of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. 100% of the profits go to Planned Parenthood.

In the first two weeks, we raised over $2500 for Planned Parenthood. Our support continues no matter what Congress decides about healthcare, on any week. The attack on Planned Parenthood is a long and familiar one.

For me, it goes as far back as 1976. It is not impossible to be pro-choice and anti-abortion. Human beings are “walking contradictions.” There is no one way for everyone but for everyone there is a way.

Complacency is easier than activism. I’ve always known that but I’ve not always been aware of the privilege I have. As an old, white lesbian, it is considerable.

We all have privilege. It is not something new but an awareness of who we are, how we intersect with everyone else. We live in a republic whose survival means we must participate–always.

The failure of the healthcare bill shows us we are still able to make a difference. We are not yet staring down the hollowness of hate but we are not far from it, either.

Sometimes we see the danger and it kills us—

and sometimes we see the danger and it sets us free.

(“I Saved the World Every Night,” Erin Passons)

I scroll screens by night.

 

As My Laundry Lay Drying and Other Tools of the Trade

ER Toy Shirt
Note ER Catnip Toy

I did not immediately recognize the connection between the way I dry laundry and the way I write. There is a bit of  forever about the time it takes damp laundry to dry in a subtropical climate. As well, for some time I have been content to let my sentences grow at will. For both, time seemed not of the essence.

Repeatedly, I assured myself that sentences would be trimmed, ordered. Some words would not survive the page, as always. Laundry would find a fold or a hanger in a drawer or closet. Well, of course.

Impermanence does wend its way through laundry as easily as it does through words. Yet, I suspected I was trying to catch it on a shirt or in a sentence, trying to hold a moment longer than it lasts.

I was.

Laundry does dry, and if it is a high plains desert climate— a mile high and more— it dries quickly, reflecting the scratchy, arid climate. The soft, pliable cloth of a subtropical climate leaves just a hint of moisture.

Note the Wyoming Flag filling out the State of Florida
Note the Wyoming Flag filling out the State of Florida

Regardless, a moment lasts only a moment– a routine of no routine–endless and timeless. It is for me to work with the reality I experience as it presents itself. It is the stuff of choices.

I decide the laundry will finish drying on my love seat, recliner, and every available piece of furniture/doorknob. I save $1.25 in quarters but it seems I always receive more than I give.

Feline EmmaRose revels in “laundry days.” At less than 5 pounds, she can sneak in, under, over and around almost any piece of laundry. It gives her such joy to explore her landscape in a new way.

Her joy is not lost on me. I am aware of words left here and there in moments already passed.

As ill as I have been this past year, most of my writing has been recording details and research. Deliberately, I was not attaching any feelings to those events. That would come later.

Yet, the laundry did dry as later passed. Both laundry and words were taking up space that EmmaRose and I do not have. We share two rooms and a bath. We’re full up.

As I folded laundry, I reached for a pair of socks, a Christmas gift. One sock is a list of banned books; the other is the world with those words, peaceful and rebellious.

As I lay drying 0116

A moment lasts only a moment, long enough for the world to change, and there is nothing comfortable in that. The comfort comes in recognizing we, too, are capable of change.

The laundry can only lie around so long. And so it is with writing.

Physically, the way I am able to write is both new and old. I’m no longer sure what tool will be required on any given day. It is its own routine of no routine, as it always has been.

If the “obstacle is the path,” and I suspect it is, a broader perspective can only mean another way to view the obstacle. A new angle, requiring new tools as well as new ways to use old tools.

Rock and Hard place 1014

I no longer type to write–mostly–I use voice recognition software. I decided it is more important to use my hands for chopping vegetables, picking up a capsule/tablet, and measuring a half milliliter of liquid prednisone in a syringe for EmmaRose.

There are no medications for my motor control, hyper-reflex, and nerve damage issues. My mind-body works with each signal or lack of signal. It is a lesson in letting go.

Some kind of sensation is evident in my fingers and thumbs, different and worth exploring. It is as if through the gnarled roots of tingling/grittiness/numbness, there is life.

palm legs 0116Once again, I receive more than is asked of me.

In using voice recognition software, my thoughts— air abstractions—become concrete representations through speech, a tool once reserved for conversation. It is a new role. This, too, feels like life.

The physical sensation of fingers on a keyboard is a different creative process than speaking those same thoughts. One is halting, dependent upon a stroke or even a missed key; the other is expansive, born free of grammar, ever ready to roam.

And then there are completely new tools. When I updated my voice recognition software, I received a Digital Voice Tracer. It transcribes my thoughts/research notes into a text document. It is remarkably accurate.

The Tracer will fit in any outstretched hand or most any pocket. It takes up just a little space on the nightstand, ready to capture ideas as they occur. Well, almost. There is always that moment in between.

It is more than I was able to do before, once again.

And I have returned to using a chalkboard, 35 x 23. I suspect I still cling to a physical way of writing; the chalkboard provides connection. Ultimately, what is written in chalk dust finds its way to my laptop through my digital voice tools.

Clean Slate at an Angle
Clean Slate at an Angle

Like EmmaRose, I, too, enjoy a change in the landscape of our apartment. I sit on the floor with chalk and my board, drawing connections between pieces of writing. I get another visual of words working together.

I had given up this practice of sitting on the floor with my chalkboard. But in viewing my obstacle from a new angle, solutions once unlikely, reappear. Like walking in the air, it just a matter of taking the first step.

Of course, the chalkboard is great for hanging laundry. As one set of thoughts turns to dust, another lies in wait. It is never-ending.