Blog Post, Buddhism, Monthly Review, Poetry, Teaching, writing

July, July!

Have you heard the song, “July, July!” by The Decemberists? You should.

This is the story of the road that goes to my house
And what ghosts there do remain
And all the troughs that run the length and breadth of my house
And the chickens how they rattle chicken chains
And we’ll remember this when we are old and ancient
Though the specifics might be vague
And I’ll say your camisole was sprightly light magenta
When in fact it was a nappy blueish grey
And the water rolls down the drain
The blood rolls down the drain
Oh what a lonely thing
In a blood red drain
July, July, July! it never seemed so strange

I always have two thoughts when July approaches. First: the song. It’s got a very “July” kind of vibe to it, which is appropriate. July comes just after the middle point of the month, and this song tackles the concept of memory, and how it fails us. But how much truth in memory matters? Does it matter that we remember things exactly as they happened? Or does it matter that we remember what we felt, what shaped us? The “ghosts there do remain,” indeed. Second: so many birthdays. My sister, two nephews, and some good friends all have birthdays in July. Maybe this is why I get along with Cancers so well?

Reading and Teaching

Anyhow, last month was my LGBTQ reading month and it went better than expected. I read a total of 7 books, all of them LGTBQ-themed. This month, I’ve turned my attention to poetry. I’m covering a few different approaches within this larger goal, though. For example, I’m reading two non-fiction texts on poetry and how to read and write it. I’m reading two short collections of poems by individual poets, and I’m reading one anthology. Finally, I will be reading one hybrid novel that contains poetry and is about a young poet.

As I work on my own novel, I find that I’m trying to avoid reading anything else in the genre (LGBTQ YA). I don’t want to be influenced or find myself doubting my abilities. So, instead, I’m pursuing other genres while writing, genres that are far from what I’m doing but still inspiring. I think, when I’ve finished the full draft and move on to edits and revisions, I’ll return to reading within the genre as a kind of research exercise. (“Am I doing what the genre is doing, generally, but in a way that’s unique to me?”)

I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong, after reading On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousI actually started following him on Instagram before reading any of his work, because I found his aesthetic interesting and had heard good things about him. And then reading him blew my mind to smithereens. I spent the last week reading some of his work in places like The New Yorker, as well as reading a bunch of articles about him in The New Yorker, Interview Magazine, The Paris Review, and Poet & Writer. In the interview with Poet & Writer, he commended his freshman English composition course and the community college experience with providing him a foundation experience, a welcoming and motivational environment in which to work with a diverse group of people, all of whom were there for the same reason: to improve themselves, to achieve a goal, and to fulfill a dream. It was a small but beautiful statement on the power of community college education.

All of this is to say, one of the collections on my reading list this month is Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I’ll also be reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (incidentally, I picked up a copy of John Okada’s No-No Boy recently as well, inspired by the disgusting concentration camps our government is operating, dysfunctionally, at the southern border.) I guess I’m on some kind of thematic kick for Asian-American writing.

The others on my list this month include the two I am reading right now: Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Poetry Like a Professor and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu (whose collection, Burnt Offerings, is a personal favorite). I’m half-way through both of these, and I’m really enjoying them. The anthology is particularly interesting because most of the included poets are new to me.

After the Foster, I plan to read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.  When I finish the anthology and two poetry collections on my list, I will be completing the month’s project with Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X.

Writing

Speaking of writing: It has been going generally well. I joined Camp NaNoWriMo this month, which is like the regular NaNoWriMo except you can adjust your goal, create cabins to collaborate with others, work on any kind of writing you want (even though it’s an off-shoot of National Novel Writing Month in November, this one is really meant to get you writing whatever you want). The social media accounts also run regular “word sprints” to encourage people to sit and write, as well as offering up a variety of prompts, e-mailed encouragement, etc. My current stats on this WIP are as follows:

  • Today’s word count: 2,945
  • July word count: 24,492
  • Total word count: 34,545
  • Chapters: 11 complete of 31 planned

I’ve been averaging about one chapter a day. I get up early in the morning and head to “my spot,” which is the same spot I used for my 100 Days Journal project. I’ve found that creating and inhabiting one’s own writing space is crucial. Yesterday, after a sleepless night (thanks, insomnia!), I couldn’t get up to write. I tried later in the day and managed only about 1,000 words (about 25-30% of normal) and that was writing additions to a scene in a previous chapter, rather than working on a new chapter. I sat there staring at the “Chapter 11” header, at 2 in the afternoon, and simply couldn’t get anything onto the page. I guess I need my routine. (Is this what they mean by “creature of habit?”)

This morning, though, I managed to get up on time (despite another sleepless night) and got the chapter done. I’m happy with this pace and progress. If I can maintain it, then I’ll have a complete draft done by the end of July and can work on revisions and edits as the new school year begins, when the opportunity for new writing is, let’s face it, not readily available. I get too tired and too burned out from lecturing, grading essays, attending meetings and trainings, etc. I do plan to keep my mornings for myself, though, but rather than working on a lot of new material, I’ll probably be revising and editing, revising and editing. I guess this means, sometime around August I’ll be looking for beta readers. How does one go about doing that, anyway? And what about finding an agent? When is that supposed to happen? How does that happen? Oh dear.

Anyway, my first book, FROM A WHISPER TO A RIOT, recently received this very thoughtful review, and I’m so grateful.

Buddhism

Part of the reason I began my 100 Days Journal project about 4 months ago is that, in addition to wanting to “force” myself into a daily writing routine, I found I had been struggling with severe depression all year. Since about January, I’ve been in a slump. It’s not unusual for me to have ups-and-downs, but this was a long one, and that “light at the end of the tunnel” we who suffer from depression come to rely on, just wasn’t showing up. Not even a little pinpoint in the distance. I didn’t know what was taking so long to come out of it at the time, but I have my thoughts now. In any case, one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been craving a kind of reckoning with myself and my beliefs, for lack of a better word. I’m an emotional and spiritual person, though agnostic and anti-religion. Still, I do always, always look for connections. The bigger picture. The threads that connect all of us. I’m a hopeful person, I guess, and so part of my struggle lately has been finding hope in a time that seems hopeless, perhaps not even worth hoping for. As I thought about what might help me investigate myself and find renewed purpose, I started to learn a little more about Buddhism. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter:

Do I have any practicing Buddhist friends who would be willing to point me to good places to start my reading? History, tenants, meditation, zen, beginners guides? I can look up lists online, but I’d rather have personal recommendations from people living the path. To be honest, I’m looking to connect with myself spiritually, to understand and articulate my own value system. I need a philosophy or “faith,” for lack of a better word, that is without deity, and Buddhism is the closest practice I know of, currently. At my core, I’ve a desire to be driven by kindness and generosity. I’ve seen a lot about Buddhism’s mindful approach to acting and reacting with love. That’s the sort of thing I want to get better at, particularly now when, let’s face it, there’s a revolution of hate happening. Ultimately, even Buddhism might not be for me. It’s possible that no established “religion” will be. But I’d like to learn more about it anyway.

I received some excellent and helpful suggestions, as well as inspiring and motivational comments and conversations. I also discovered that some of my Twitter connections are practicing Buddhists, though I never knew it. What a world of possibilities and revelations can open to us, if only we have the courage to ask! I’ve begun my journey with The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh. So far, it is resonating with me. His style is warm and to the point. He explains a lot of how the history of Buddhism has been corrupted or altered (inadvertently or intentionally), and then gets into the tenants and philosophies, including what they mean and how to practice them independently. I’m excited to continue learning more, and I’ll probably stick with Hanh’s texts for now, though I also hear good things about Pema Chodron. Am I a Buddhist? I don’t know. I take a lot from Christ’s teachings, too, but I cannot be Christian (ask me about that some other time). It may end up the same with Buddhism, though something about this experience so far, and the embracing of human philosophy rather than the supernatural, is appealing to me.

Take a breath, and onward.

Standard
2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Amy Tan, astrophysics, Book Review, Education, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Parker J. Palmer, physics, Potpour-reads, Stephen Hawking, Teaching

Teaching, Physics, and The Joy Luck Club

Potpour-reads: Palmer, Hawking, and Tan

For a variety of reasons, from end of semester madness to poor time management and general laziness, I find I’ve fallen behind on SIX book reviews. Despite the loftiest of plans, I’ve decided that, no, I’m not going to sit here and write full-length reviews for each of these. Instead, I’m separating the books into two “potpour-reads” posts, each with brief thoughts on three books. That should get me caught up in time to finish The Outsiders and, perhaps, write a good old-fashioned review for that one. (Or perhaps not? Who knows, anymore!?) Anyway, I’m calling these “potpour-reads” because these six books span a variety of topics and genres, without rhyme or reason, and I have no intention of trying to make them “fit” any particular perspective. So, let’s grab-bag it, shall we? Thanks, Jeopardy, for the idea!

The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer

This one was selected as a group read among some fellow faculty members at the college where I teach. I was apparently somewhat over-eager in reading the entire book right away, not realizing that we were going to take it in very small bits and pieces (we chose the book last October and have, so far, only discussed the introduction – but I read the entire book in February, I think. Maybe it was March? I could look it up, but I’m not going to). This one was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list because I knew we would be reading it as a group, so it should have been a pretty easy “win” for me. And it was, except that I waited months to sit down and write out any thoughts on it, and at this point I’ve pretty much forgotten most of it. On the bright side, given the way my colleagues are tackling the book, I’ll definitely be able to go back and read it chapter-by-chapter, as they are, for discussion. This will allow me to more thoughtfully digest and discuss it. My first impressions of the book were moderate, to be honest. I found a lot of what Palmer says to be quite relevant to what I do in my profession, especially in considering the ups-and-downs of any classroom. That said, much of the book’s points seemed repetitive to me, and there is a kind of forced optimism about it. I am one of those bizarre educators who think that teaching is a calling, not a career, and that is the kind of audience this book hopes to reach. Still, given the kind of semester I was having while reading the book, I couldn’t help but pick apart every pie-in-the-sky suggestion or anecdote. The chapters were also very long and not diverse enough in theme. I did appreciate how each chapter begins with a kind of philosophical thought about education, from profound thinkers of the past. It certainly added to my reading list, if nothing else. I wish I could remember more about the book so as to give it a richer review (and it probably deserves one), but it has all simply fallen out of my head. Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I first read this book in high school and understood about 10% of it at the time. I re-read the book after Hawking’s passing because I knew I hadn’t understood much of it that first time and because I felt the need to sit with Stephen Hawking now that he has passed on from our world. Ironic how that always seems to happen, with those we know personally and those we don’t. I would like to say I understood a good part of the book this time around, but if I’m being honest, I think I can allow myself a generous, oh, 44%. I certainly understood more of the words this time around, and some of the concepts, but much like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this book tends to go over one’s head, especially if one’s background in science ended with college general education requirements more than a decade ago. Still, I have always enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s narrative voice and his sense of humor. He does make one want to learn, and that is more than I can say of a lot of science writers. A Brief History of Time does an extraordinary job of awakening the awe in its reader, of making even a jaded adult reader feel that childlike wonder again, which I think is part of why Hawking wrote the book in the first place. Because it is a feeling he never lost, despite how much he knew about quarks and black holes and all that. Interestingly, what I did not remember about this book is how wide-open Hawking leaves the door. He explains a lot of what we know for sure, yes, but he also delights in everything we do not know, which far outweighs the thing we do know. This is a book I will probably return to time and again, although I think my next step will be to read the supposedly even more accessible, A Briefer History of Time, which Hawking wrote after realizing that almost nobody understood this first one. Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I read this one for my Classics Club challenge. It is book 13 of 50 completed for that list, and I’m glad to have read it, finally. Here’s what I can remember about the book (and this is the kind of review I’m destined to write when I try reading during difficult and busy semesters, and without taking any notes. What was I thinking?). Anyhow, again, what I remember: I enjoyed the book. Yahoo! My first impression was that it felt a bit cold, but ultimately, I think that is part of the point. The story covers the relationship between mothers and daughters, all of whom are connected in the narrative’s present-day San Francisco Chinatown. The mothers are all immigrants and they try to navigate lives of split-identities, part of them still in their hometowns in China, part of them here in the United States. Their daughters often struggle to understand, and the daughters and mothers each fail to communicate those differences effectively. There’s a kind of gulf that seems both impossible to bridge and yet deeply, psychologically understood. An ancient “knowing” still exists in the daughters, one that helps them to understand and appreciate their mothers, all the while existing in a society that doesn’t quite belong to them, and even less so to their parents. As more and more of the mothers’ histories becomes clear, the daughters find themselves even more intricately and confusingly interconnected. I found The Joy Luck Club to be interesting in its exploration of the immigrant experience, and I especially appreciated that the four mothers’ experiences in China were so wholly different; these different backgrounds opened up new worlds to me, one who is admittedly rather ignorant of Chinese culture and history. There is a sensitive treatment of mythology (superstition?) as well, though I know some readers have taken issue with how the mothers’ beliefs seem stereotypical and perhaps offensive. To be honest, I cannot speak to this debate because I simply don’t know enough about it. If the debate has merit, though, then perhaps one concession might be that it made this reader, at least, want to know more about these people, and their cultures and histories and stories. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0. 

Standard