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The Wild Fruits of Summer

basket of tomatoesThis weekend is my birthday weekend, and in anticipation of the joyous acclamations that will probably ring out for hours, I am temporarily laying down the arduous task of making sense on this blog (a lofty goal I seldom attain anyway).

Instead of trying to say something sensible and literary, I can relax and be my real self. That opens up a full Pandora’s storage shed (way too much to fit into a box) of potential nonsense that I can use to litter the internet. I feel a little bad about the littering, knowing how rigorous the internet normally is for maintaining rational, logical information. But here I am anyway.

Given that birthdays allude to the passage of time, I’ll float back in time and tell a true story from when I was around thirteen, though I don’t remember exactly how old I was. There’s probably not a lot that I remember exactly. At that time we lived in a house next to my grandparents, more or less on their farm not far outside the town of Gainesville, Georgia, in a house my grandfather built for us in what had been a field of peas. Our first year in that house, in fact, in the front, facing the road that was still tar and gravel at that time, we had to wait for the peas to be harvested before we could create a real lawn.

Next door, in my grandparents’ yard, they had two pecan trees which had been there quite a while. Pecan trees grow to be surprisingly large (surprising to me, anyway), and under one of those trees, on one side of the yard, was a picnic table. I’m also remembering that at some point there was a pile of sand under the tree, and we played in the sand.

The pecan tree was not far from the road that ran past our houses, and near the tree was a small parking lot, as my grandfather also ran a little country store next to his house. As kids we’d go to the store to beg for enormous candy bars, and my grandfather, not being a dentist, would sometimes give them to us. The store had a concrete tank outside with minnows that people would buy to use for fishing, so of course we’d sometimes lean into the tank and play with the little fish. Inside the store was a small gas stove, surrounded by a half circle of chairs with woven cane bottoms, where we’d sit in the winter to wait for the school bus.

My story, however, takes place in the summer, when large wooden baskets would be sitting in the yard full of vegetables, including tomatoes so full of juice that each one was like a handful of summer by itself. One day my brother, the wild one just under me in age, climbed up in the enormous pecan tree, having somehow gotten up there with several tomatoes. Maybe he was with friends. Maybe he was with me. As I said, many things I don’t remember now.

Unlike winter tomatoes, available now in the supermarket all year long, which will bounce off whatever they’re thrown at, the summer tomatoes on my grandparents’ farm would burst like a bomb of tomato juice when encouraged to do so. So up the tree my brother went, and even though it was summer, and the tree was full of leaves, and the view was no doubt impeded, he could see enough to know when a car was coming down the road past our houses.

Perhaps he threw at one or two and missed. I’m sure it would take both planning and luck to have a tomato appear just in front of the windshield as a car was passing by, but my brother managed it. Now I’m thinking I must have been in the tree as well, or maybe I’ve just imagined the sight of that same car after it turned around down the road and came back to the parking lot of my grandfather’s store, the sight of a very angry man getting out, and just before that, the sight of my brother leaping down from the tree and running like a deer toward the woods down the hill behind the houses.

I can understand now why that man was angry. I’m sure I would be, too. At the time, though, he just seemed like one of those adults whose purpose was to make life harder for children. “These kids got to wash my car!” he yelled. I suppose someone got some water from the spicket that stuck up in the yard, next to the sand pile, and rinsed off his windshield.

And maybe he saw my brother running away, which made it easier for us to explain that the actual criminal had left. Some guy we barely even knew.


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Let’s Make a Thousand Years of Art

young girl sitting on a bedI’m pausing the writing blog this week to ponder a question that does involve writing, but not writing alone. Last weekend I visited several art galleries, to ask when they are having openings, as I wanted to go and meet some of the artists. In one of the galleries, I got into a discussion with the woman working there about art and civilization. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation got started, but that’s how I am. I’ll talk about stuff like that.

In the conversation, I told her an idea I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that I think human beings could become civilized some day, and if we do, it will be because of art. Whether art could be the path that leads us there, for her, was a moot point, as she declared a belief that we are not capable of being civilized.

Her view was something along the lines of “People are too inherently bad” to ever really be civilized. I can’t disagree about human capacity for badness. The physical nature of our existence, with all its discomfort, pain, and distress (and that’s if you have a good life), combined with our spirits that rebel against those things, can lead us—very easily—into abusing one another as well as ourselves. It is as though, just because we are born, we thrash about angrily: “What the fuck is this? I don’t want to be sick! I don’t want to be lonely! I don’t want to grow old!”

That basic dilemma cannot be changed. Does it mean, then, as my art gallery interlocutor said, that human beings will not ever attain civilization?

I replied that in the long run, I think we can. I don’t say definitely will, but can. And when I say “long run” I mean something like a thousand years from now. That sounds impossibly distant to us, but after all, such a time will come. I do believe that art will be the path, by which I mean real art, not propaganda produced by government or corporations, but creations from the heart.

Some forms of art we’ve known for centuries, even thousands of years: epic poetry, songs, dances, theater, sculpture. Based on some of these early forms of art, other forms have been invented in recent centuries: novels, opera, symphonic music, graphic novels, movies. There certainly are artforms yet to come. And of course there are things like architecture, gardening, interior design, clothing, that can be art as well. A joy of creation can be expressed in many ways.

If we can become civilized (which we so obviously are not at the moment), what would that be? I can’t see a thousand years ahead, so I don’t know all that might be done. This is a good spot to use a quote I wrote down a couple of nights ago, lying now on my desk, from a song by Ryan Adams: “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”

I have yesterday’s eyes, but one thing I know absolutely, that the most basic aspect of civilization will be that every human being is valued for who they are born to be, that every human is allowed to express their nature and feel joy in their own existence. So much of the stupidity that litters our own society at the moment, in our bigoted attitudes toward what we call “race”, toward ethnicity, toward gender, toward sexuality—a civilized people will have to look at us with pity for the darkness we live in. As long as we live in that darkness, we don’t care that some people are poor, that some people are hungry, that some have no health care, that some are afraid others will harm them.

I have hope, however. I will say it in an art gallery. I will say it on a blog. Because of art we will get there. If you have an urge to create, then do it, and don’t wait. Paint a picture. Plant a garden. Decorate your living room the way you really want it to look. And encourage your children.


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Is Irish Alive?

A people’s language is a huge part of their identity. This fact is so well known that dominant powers across the world have tried to force smaller groups to give up their language. When the English ruled Ireland, where I am now as I write, they tried to destroy the Irish language.

In spite of English attempts, the Irish language is everywhere here on official signs. This is especially interesting to see the Irish names of cities (such as Luimnigh for Limerick or Gaillimh for Galway).

When you start to notice, however, you see signs for things drivers need to know right now, only in English, such as “All through traffic turn here” and you realize the Irish is just symbolic.

There are people who do speak Irish at home, however. The western part of the island has the most Irish speakers  (40,000 to 50,000).

The parts of Ireland where the Irish language is mostly spoken are called the Gaeltacht, which is broken up into multiple small areas, and includes the city of Galway. As a bad sign for Irish, the Gaeltacht is shrinking.

I wondered if I would hear people speaking Irish. I’m using AirBnB while in Ireland, and I asked the woman I was staying with in Limerick if she speaks Irish. She surprised me and said yes she does. She did not grow up speaking the language, and in order to really use it now, she has to seek out conversation groups. Nevertheless, she sent her daughter to schools where she studied only in Irish. As a positive sign of interest, the demand for places in the school exceeds availability.

Here in Galway, over on the west coast, I asked my waitress at dinner if she speaks Irish. She said it’s her native language, that she grew up speaking it, and in her village, it’s what people speak. She added, however, that she was the only person in the bar who was fluent in Irish.

In most of the country, most people do not speak it, and I’ve been told that it’s badly taught in schools. If the Irish want to save their language, and I hope they will, the country has to try a lot harder than it is trying.

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Stifle This


I want my own

I was thinking that after the tight, elegant blogging I’ve been doing lately, with touches of grace and philosophical depth and a hint of lime, I’ve earned the right to babble like an idiot this time, with no meaning or control.

And that’s so easy for me to do.

Man, it’s hot here right now, 10:30 at night and 78 degrees in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank God for fans. Anyhow, I thought I’d update you on some aspects of living a writer’s life, in case you’ve lost your mind and are considering doing that. This evening I was in a pizza joint that specializes in 10-inch personal pizzas. A family came in, and at their table, a cheerful little girl who seemed maybe four years old apparently expected her own pizza, but then was told she was sharing with a younger sibling. Immediately, she went into moody-faced scrunched up tearfulness.

I don’t mean to compare myself to that, but if I were a four-year-old writer, this would have been a moody-faced week. Specifically, I’ve been anxious to work on revisions for the new novel The Invention of Colors. When I’m writing from scratch, even 20 minutes is enough for me to be productive, but for this revision, I need stretches of time to really focus, and I’m not getting them. It’s been very frustrating. There is so much to do, and other novels waiting to be worked on, and yet I’m wasting my life going to work. Not that I’m unmindful of the luxury of a salary and benefits, having done without them for a few years.

Part of the impetus this week pushing me into the revision is that I traded this novel with another writer—I read her book and she read mine, and we gave one another a critique. She returned some very helpful comments on weaknesses and problems in my novel. I’m grateful for that, and if she had not, I’d have been disappointed, thinking “So how am I supposed to make this better?” At the same time, she had strongly positive reactions to the book in several ways, so I feel more confident of what I have. But I need time to work.

In other sparkling writer news, I don’t believe I’ve mentioned on the blog that a few months ago I hired a publicist to help with promoting things. One of the things he did was to send the short story collection that is in the works to a publisher in North Carolina, who had agreed to read it. This week I learned that the publisher liked the writing but has decided to focus on other things, the bastard. Well, moody face. In the meantime, my publicist found a publisher in Australia and sent the book to them. So, hmm.

And though I have whined here about lack of time—a true whine, heartfelt, and I own it—I nevertheless went twice this week to open mic poetry readings to read a few poems. You can slap me for braggadocio, but I get fairly positive reactions to the poetry, so going to the readings is partly putting myself in front of people (building publicity to use later, someday), and partly just balming the ego to hear people say nice things. It helps to avoid the moody face.

At these poetry readings, I have to admit that I hear little that makes me say, “Oh, yes!” And yet…sometimes I do. Sometimes, sometimes, I just open my eyes wider and think Wow. But in general if you want to hear a lot of mediocre, cliche-ridden, desperately sincere poetry—open mic poetry readings are the place for you. One very common theme is “I’m OK” (anxiously and loudly declared by people who are clearly not OK, but are working on it). Those poems are usually addressed to a former romantic interest, though sometimes to a hideous relative. Another theme also quite common is “X is good, you should like it” (X being, at different times, yourself, love, peace, the earth, God). This second theme tends especially to wallow in cliche, and many poets seem unaware that repeating phrases they’ve heard all their life does not make particularly good poetry. A third tendency one hears at open mics is a poem that makes the point the poet wants within the first five lines, and then goes on for another fifty lines.

But listen to my snarky bitchiness. I should be ashamed. I should be, I know. But I’m not. I might end with a fake humble “Aw, shucks, I don’t want to discourage you from writing poetry” but I’m remembering a quote from Flannery O’Connor, a fellow Georgia writer. She was asked whether she thought that universities stifle writers. She replied, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”

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Wizardry, Illusion, and Allurement


This is not anyone you know

Back on Wednesday I was having a beer with Harry Potter. OK, I’m kidding—he doesn’t like beer. He was drinking black Russians, quite a few as a matter of fact. You know the drink? Made with vodka and Kahlua? Anyway, I said, “Harry, doesn’t ordering a drink with that name sort of imply that you’re into black magic?”

He narrowed his eyes in that spooky way he will sometimes and said, “Oh, somebody wants to be a frog for the rest of the day.”

“No, no,” I said, “I’m not criticizing!”

This is one of the problems with magic: it can go in any direction. One minute Harry is protecting you from a basilisk, and the next minute he’s got four black Russians in him and he’s waving the wand in your direction slurring, “I want a puppy.”

In general, though, whether benignant or malevolent, magic permeates our lives. Perhaps you don’t believe in magic, but I would still ask you whether the idea of magic isn’t a useful metaphor to express the mystery that makes up every day. I’m looking out now at tiny bright green leaves appearing at the ends of branches. They seem to come from nowhere, year after year, like…you know, magic.

Or have you heard a mockingbird sing? I don’t know how any bird knows its song (I mean, how big can the brain of a bird be in that tiny head?), but the mockingbird goes from song to song to song. Look, that’s not a metaphor—that’s actual magic.

And then throw in the rising sun, the birth of babies, the sound of thunder, an occasional yeti coming down off the mountain, and elves who steal stuff in your house at night, and you end up with a world that is hard to explain, unless you consider magic.

As far back as we have writing, writers have occasionally used magic in their writing. Sometimes we do this just because it’s fantastically entertaining, as Harry Potter keeps telling me. At other times, we may use magic because it gives us another way to explore the wildest mystery we encounter, the human mind. How can the same person (i.e., me and you) be capable in one instance of gentle caring, or in another instance of atrocity? There is no explaining this mystery, but we try, and to explore that chaos we call the mind, we need both angels and dragons.

We can also do more subtle things with magic in writing. Suppose you had a mirror that would only show you as you will appear three days from now. It wouldn’t be all that different, with only three days. Would you use that mirror? What if you looked in it and you had black eyes? What if one day you looked in it and you weren’t there at all?

Aside from the reasons I’ve given here, what makes magic so natural to writing is that all writing uses magic. Instead of this magic discussion, I might simply describe a heavyset man in a blue sweatshirt walk into a coffee shop, order a hot chocolate, then go sit in a corner to drink it and read a book on accounting. No magic, right? Except that there is no man, no coffee shop, no book. It’s all nothing more than letters I’ve put on a computer screen, and you used them to create this man in your mind. How is that different from the same imaginary man walking outside, rising off the ground, and flying away?

Here’s some more magic for you. I have an author Facebook page now—woohoo! 21st century!—and I’d appreciate it if you’d go there and express fondness for it:

There is also a video there in which I talk in more detail about the use of magic in writing. In exchange, I promise not to turn you into a frog. Really, I promise, mostly.

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Would You Read This?

book with arms writingI was talking in the last couple of weeks with someone who told me he doesn’t read. Of course as a literate person he must read something, documents at work, emails, letters from the insurance company. What he was telling me, though, is that he doesn’t choose to read when it isn’t required, to read for pleasure.

For me as a writer, you might imagine, the idea of not reading is incomprehensible. My head is often full of things I’ve read. Shakespeare’s Falstaff seems like a real person to me, someone who has been alive, leering at women and getting drunk, for 400 years. In addition to characters and places, I carry around ideas I’ve gained from books. From Isaac Asimov, I have ideas about how robots should behave.

I wonder what kind of life it could be, not to read. How narrow and limited would that be? Narrow and limited, indeed, I think, though a person nowadays might cover it up some with information gained from electronic sources. Even if you don’t read for pleasure, what about books on history, nutrition, gardening, politics? How are you taking part in the world if you never read? If you are able to read and don’t, is that very much different from a person who is not able?

In contrast, I also know people who approach reading as though it is the purpose of their life. Why would someone feel this way? If you look at reading as a physical activity, it means sitting mostly immobile, sometimes growing uncomfortable, focusing the eyes on lines of small black shapes, made in turn of fine lines, often with only slight differences. The light must be right, the eyes must stay focused, and then the eyes grow tired as well.

Physically, it doesn’t sound very appealing, but that ignores the fact that the mind is involved. If you ignore the mind and focus only on the body, how much fun is baseball, or deer hunting, or mountain climbing? As with these activities, the important thing about reading is what the mind is doing.

There are many possible reasons to read: to gain information, to educate ourselves, or for spiritual inspiration, for example. How many things can the mind do? There are books for all of those things. Do you want to know about the history of railroads? About Chinese cooking? About the best places to sail a boat in the Caribbean?

I come back, though, to fiction, because that’s what I do. Haven’t humans told stories as long as we know we’ve been human? Every culture that has writing has stories that go back thousands of years, from China to Egypt. In Mesopotamia, the oldest known piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is over 4,000 years old. Telling stories seems to be part of what makes us human.

So when we read fiction, we are taking part in being human. Sometimes the stories are for entertainment, to distract us for a while from our hard lives. Sometimes the stories are to teach us things, or to reinforce our sense of our own culture. And sometimes the stories are to let our spirits do what spirits want to do, to expand and fly and encompass a world without limits. Reading can let us do that. Our bodies may sit immobile, holding a book or computer, moving our eyes over the detailed shapes of the letters, but those things are tools, and the tools let the spirit roar through space, or walk down a street in England a thousand years ago, or chase a spy through Berlin on a foggy day.

Before the year O, back in the BC era, the Roman politician and writer Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul. Cicero knew what children know. Have you ever watched young children with books? Even the ones too young to read want to look at books, want to be read to, want to turn the pages, want to hear the story.

When I look at young children with books, and the interest they take, I almost think that human beings evolved to read books. We had to wait tens of thousands of years, however, to finally invent the books. Now the books are here. Let’s read them.

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Liberty paintingMaybe I would think like this if I had never gone anywhere. Maybe, but I look back to the time when I first went to study in the Soviet Union, seeing what a dark dictatorship looks like from the inside. In very important ways, I’m sure I didn’t see what it was like, as I knew I could leave, and I was never in prison or afraid. But I think I began to pay more attention to the slow slow steps of humankind to free ourselves. Gradually I came to understand what the heart of that freedom is, when each spirit can joyfully be what it is.

Eventually I came to realize that as long as we carry racism, sexism, homophobia, and more, we do not need to live in a dark dictatorship to be oppressed. When we oppress other people, no matter how much our mouths repeat the word “freedom”, we have a Soviet Union of the mind inside our own heads.

As I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legalization of gay marriage in America, I keep watching. There is so much left to watch for.

I wrote the poem here thinking about this. Take this poem and use it where it might be useful.

Then Comes the Day That I Rise Up

Then comes the day that I rise up
to trudge down cobbled streets to squares.
Scowling horsemen sit, hard gleaming.
I stand up tall, eyes wide,
until their slashing swords slay me by the thousands.
As I fall to earth,
the stones wet with my blood say,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up
to walk from captive fields to meet,
disregarding passes and permission,
to walk in fear but boldly,
take up pikes, and lay down chains.
When militiamen with panicked rifles come,
I spend my last moments in the surprise of freedom
before they shoot and hang me by the hundreds.
The grass below my swinging feet whispers,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
lay down the needle, the pot on the stove,
to walk, arms linked, down angry streets.
Mobs of agitated men stand by
with eyes like snakes, mouths writing in disgust.
I hold up signs proclaiming equality
until a police baton breaks my hand.
As we are thrown into wagons by the dozens,
faces against the sides,
the cold steel laughs,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
and down the apron, down the shovel, put the porter’s cap down.
I walk across bridges
and stride through closed doors,
sit where I choose and stand at my own desire.
I declare my humanity
until their clubs have beaten me down,
before the unleashed dogs that snarl,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
again the day that I rise up,
and yet again I will rise.
tunisia protest

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