A Little of Everything

Today I’m a guest on fellow mystery writer Jim Jackson’s blog, answering ten questions about writing and reading. I had fun with this, and hope you will, too. Once you get to his blog, you can also find interviews with many other writers, including some of my favorites like DV Berkom. These Q&A posts could be great way to discover some new writers as well as get to know those whose work you enjoy.

Happy Tuesday.

 

 

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What is Pleasant to Live Through …

… seldom makes a good story. I was reminded of this as I searched for something interesting to say in an e-mail to a friend. I wanted to stay in touch and to hear from him, but my sane, steady, enjoyable life provided little material. Hello. I’m happy. My students are great this semester. My yoga classes are going well. I’m reading good books and I’m writing. In conversation, a lot could flow from any of this, but in writing, not much.

A few years ago, I was talking with a new acquaintance at a faculty holiday party, and he mentioned that he was reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I had read it my freshman year in high school. Yet, when he mentioned the passage that stood out most strongly for him, it was one that I’d often thought of in the decades since reading it. Tolkien sums up the passage a long and pleasant time for the travelers in his story in one or two lines, then adds that things that are agreeable to live through are often dull to tell about, but things that are hard or even terrible to live through make marvelous tales. Authors tend to feel affection for their characters, and yet to make good stories, we have to put them through challenges. No life would remain pleasant if it didn’t require us to do something difficult. And that’s where the story is—growth through pain or danger.

At the last meeting of my book club, each us got the others caught up on her summer. One person was getting divorced, another had seen a friend through a major crisis, and another had taken her peace studies students to Hiroshima, a place that literally went through hell to become what it now is, a city dedicated to peace. And I … had been on vacation. Needless to say, the most compelling narrative wasn’t mine.

I had tons of fun, but my friends had more questions about a medical weirdness that took place shortly before I left for New Mexico. Because what makes a better story? “I went on vacation and it was great,” or “I had a posterior vitreal detachment?” They were fascinated by the phenomenon of having the gel in my eyeball partially detach and getting flashes of light and a giant floater in one eye. “How big is it? Like, the size of blueberry? Is it always there? Do you have to have surgery?” (Smaller than a blueberry, in case you care, and no, and no.) Ah, we humans. We love icky, scary stuff, and you can’t get much ickier than eyeballs.

I thought the divorce story was amazing, a much better story. Not for the conflict but for the grace. The couple who are parting ways took a long-planned backpacking trip together even though they had decided they would end their marriage. I’ve talked to each of them about it and they’re glad they had this final adventure together. backpacking_bechler_canyon_18430518468It’s their story, so I won’t tell any more of it here, but I can see in it the qualities that make the best stories. In a way, it ties in with the peace studies story and the helping-a-friend-in-crisis story. It had value and purpose, and took strength and courage. It made them grow and change. And in its difficulty shines its beauty.

Turn it off. Turn it all off.

One of my yoga teachers in New Mexico often mentions the importance of quieting the nervous system. He doesn’t use music in his classes. I teach in places where music is expected, so I use unobtrusive, meditative music, but it’s still background sound, another level of stimulus.

Readers of this blog may have noticed I like to contemplate the effects of power outages. Today there was a brief one at the fitness center at my college. Normally, there are a few fluorescent lights in the group exercise studio that never go off, though I turn off the ones I can. These perma-lights were finally gone. So was the steady blowing of the air conditioning. Its presence has been ceaseless, so I never knew how harsh and persistent it was until it stopped. With plenty of natural light through the windows of a room that had been chilled a little too cool for yoga, the outage was wonderful. The quality of my voice softened. The clarity of my thoughts sharpened. My teaching became more precise, more aware, and I felt a matching shift in the students’ energy. When I stopped talking, there was nothing to be heard at all. Except, perhaps, each student heard his or her own breath.

Overstimulation has a subtle yet pervasive effect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s addictive. There are people who say they have to sleep with a TV on or have one running at all times when they’re home—“for the noise.” That would drive me crazy. I write in as much silence as possible and do my personal yoga practice in silence, too, either outdoors with only the sounds of birds and insects and occasional neighbors’ voices, or indoors in a quiet room. I’ve praised perfect silence in nature before, but today was the first time I’ve experienced the benefits of deep silence in my teaching.

Yoga doesn’t require stimuli that keep our minds bouncing and nerves buzzing. Yes, we can learn to do it in the midst of a barrage of sounds, but when we can choose to be free of them, it’s even better. The yoga sutras begin with a definition of yoga that can be translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”