Saturday, May 28, 2011

part of a procession

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The jacaranda tree at Arlington Gardens, Pasadena

For three weeks in May, the jacaranda trees push their purple petals out and display them for all to see. On streets they line, it's like a parade, except they are the ones watching as you drive by, and they throw out their petaled-confetti like an invitation to drive a little slower. This celebration is short, like a last hurrah before the sun bears down and scorches all that tries to live in cooler months, and no longer part of a procession, we drive fast just to get to where we are going.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

it's where i live

“It’s where I live. I mean, I’m not someone who flies into a place and then leaves it again. I actually live in these areas… And so it’s a different kind of experience.” - Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR reporter

Growing up, I attended a Mennonite church in a rural area outside of Philadelphia. Every Palm Sunday and summer, a group of children and a few adults from a Mennonite church in the city would visit us. This group of mostly African American kids was accompanied by Ms. Darlene, the children’s minister at that church. Ms. Darlene was a short, white woman who always dressed in a long, modest skirt, a loose blouse, and white tennis shoes. Her hair was pinned up in the same loose bun with messy tendrils hanging down — a suggestion of her simplicity, not stylishness. She had a strong voice with which she made Bible stories jump off felt boards and into real life, and her singing was loud and sure. The church was located in a poor, mostly minority neighborhood, and that’s where she made her home even though it was dangerous, especially for someone who stuck out like she did. She once told a story about being attacked by men who attempted to rape her. When she prayed, they stopped.

Ms. Darlene was my unnamed inspiration, I think, when at the end of high school I decided I would be a social worker. My college application process was shaped by the goal: I applied to colleges only in Pennsylvania so that I could practice social work and possibly get a Master’s Degree under the state’s accreditation. And I wanted no debt — social workers don’t make much money — so I chose a public university. Throughout my studies, I imagined myself a scruffy, white single woman (because that’s who social workers are, right?) living in the inner city, seeing lives transformed, though by what, I’m not sure I knew at the time.

After college, I began seeing how difficult social work was for me. Being with people required a lot of energy, and even more so when those people are messy and needy. I was often overwhelmed by situations I encountered and felt helpless and angry most of the time, though I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have articulated that then. And I need concrete signs of progress or completion to feel accomplished, which come infrequently when working with people.

What’s more, other, more pressing dreams were rising to the surface, and the life I’d assumed I’d live as a social worker wasn’t matching up to these. I wanted to be married, that’s for sure, and the messy bun and sneakers with a skirt aren’t exactly my style. And then there was writing, which I liked to enjoy from a distance but was too afraid to think I could do it, too.

And even if I could write, what about racial reconciliation and being cross-cultural and God’s love for the poor — all the values I’d spent my college and post-college years championing and (gasp) basing my relationship with God on? Who was I without these things? I couldn't imagine how writing could give them as central a place as I'd been taught to believe they should have.

Thankfully, I am on my way to understanding that being a social worker isn’t the only way to love God or help people. The decision to write has been largely based on gut instinct, following joy, and asking God about my desires. Giving myself to it, I’ve found a path waiting for me where, along the way, I am being offered things I’d given up, like a way to help people, extend relationship and explore the meaning of their experiences.

Many journalists and writers have chosen the profession because they feel compelled to find meaning and dignity in human experiences. This compulsion leads to where few others are going. And it leads to connections with people whose voices we need to hear.

If you’re still with me, here’s where the real treat comes in. On my drive to work I listened to this short interview with a journalist who covers news in the Middle East. It’s a short interview, so I encourage you to give a listen. I love her approach to journalism (as well as her obvious passion for it). My favorite parts are where she talks about going where others aren't going because that's where the story is, and about making her home where she is reporting. To me, her choice is an expression of her deep value for relationships with people and for giving words to their stories.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about the interview, calling, or any other ideas this brings to you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

moving

What strikes me is how physical the act of writing is, or ought to be. For me, writing isn't just sitting at a desk and willing words to flow in some grace-filled order. To get my thoughts, ideas, words moving, I often need to move myself.

Some other writers do the same. They run. Drive. Take a bath. Clean.

And something I love about how these writers express what inspires them is that they believe in the truth of metaphor. Driving on a highway, for example, is a moving picture of progessing past hindrances -- and not just a picture, it actually has the power to take us forward past creative roadblocks in some real, internal way if we let it.

What about you? What physical acts flow into some sort of creative manifestation -- especially when you're feeling stuck?


Monday, May 16, 2011

i desire to be rewritten

"I think in terms of revision because I have been revised. As a Christian, I feel that I have started over and over, continuing one development after another. After reading scripture, or hearing a sermon, I have made adjustments in my attitudes and behavior. I see new ways of doing things I had not thought of before, or new ways of thinking I had not realized. I desire to be rewritten, so to speak. Don't leave me as I am has been a way of opening prayer."

-Diane Glancy in a chapter on revision in A Syllable of Water, edited by Emilie Griffin (bold emphasis mine)

guest post: a runner and her body

My sister writes on her blog about running, water and raising kids, among other things. Her writing is insightful, inviting and always interesting! (With that mix of topics, how couldn't it be?)

Last week she asked if I would contribute a story I'd told her to a post she was writing about runners and body image. If you're interested in reading her thoughts and my story, you can find them here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

in which i let my senses guide me

In Paris, Anthony Bourdain chose to let his senses guide him instead of his itinerary. In San Francisco, I did the same.

Here's what I remember from that night: I was tired and weary. A few days in a new city at a professional conference filled with information and networking while eagerly waiting a to hear about a new dream-job opportunity and writing daily on a new blog will do that to you. I was pushing forward into new territory in a lot of senses, so my grand plans for tromping around San Francisco weren't quite as realized as I'd hoped.

But there was a photography exhibit at a boutique that had been at the top of my list, so I went. After a metro ride and a long walk to the store, I found myself done with the exhibit and invigorated by the walk through the neighborhood: I was ready to explore. To let my senses guide me.

And here is where they took me: to a Buffalo Exchange, where I almost bought a cute pair of boots. To a gastropub for wine and a burger. And, serendipitously, to a used bookstore I'd read about in the New York Times the week before.

Like most used bookstores, this one was small and unpretentious. The love for books in these places is almost palpable. The books, though cast off by their original owners, are lovingly and painstakingly sorted, priced, displayed -- and, eventually, reclaimed as treasures. I know my routine when I'm in a used bookstore: literature first, then non-fiction or essay, whatever they call it. And poetry and cookbooks. Here there was a clearance section, with new books that were discounted.

That's where I found it: a book about New Journalism -- interviews with nonfiction writers on their craft. The title threw me off a bit (I knew little about the genre of new journalism). And though I like a deal, discounts make me suspicious. But for $5, I decided to take a chance on it.

Back at the hotel, it was the first one of my purchase that I cracked open. Delighted by the introduction, I read the first interview the next day at the airport. I really couldn't believe my luck. The kind of writing being described was exactly what I'd like to do: nonfiction story-telling that combines the reporting and research methods of journalism with the literary craft of fiction writing. I guess I knew it existed without realizing there was a whole genre and following devoted to it.

Over the past five months I've slowly made my way through these interviews, savoring each tip and technique, each insight into the how, why and what of these writers' craft. I've underlined, tabbed, dog-eared and quoted. I'm grateful for all the nuggets I've culled from the book. But more, I'm awed by this God-given signpost in my journey into writing. In there is a confirmation that my desire can lead me to the places I need to be, and that God is in that process. That God is a creator and backer of my internal sensors for joy, delight and creativity.

It's a reminder to let my itinerary go and let my senses guide me.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

making it as meaningful

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"It came from a moment I witnessed...that stayed with me for years…but I had no idea how... to make the seemingly mundane moment as meaningful as it was in real time to me."

-Adrian Nicole Leblanc, in an interview from The New New Journalism by Robert S. Boynton

I wanted to write you the story of how I found this book — a treasure and signpost for me during a period of vocational transition. But the words are choppy today, so instead I want to share with you my favorite quote from the book. Don’t you think it sums up the task of a nonfiction writer perfectly?

The story will come soon, I promise — hopefully conveyed with as much meaning as it has for me.