Making Mistakes

I’m at a point in my work in progress (Mae Martin Mysteries book eight) where my protagonist feels compelled to both help and confront the antagonist—a person who has wronged her and done even greater wrongs to people she cares about. Then the antagonist, through actions that karmically earned a disaster, is in crisis. Perhaps there’s an ideal path Mae could take, but can she see it? As the author, do I want her to?

In this book, Mae is taking a college course on Eastern Philosophy. She’s doing her best as a beginner to explore the wisdom of the Buddha. The antagonist’s brother and his roommate are dedicated yogis, not just in asana practice but in attempting to live the philosophy. Mae’s summer house guest is an Apache teenager who is training to become a medicine man. In the scene I’m working on, these well meaning, spiritually aware young people are in a situation where the right action is hard to find. Hard to agree on. Is there room for compassion and outrage at the same time in the same heart? At thirty, Mae is the oldest of the group. She’s likely to mess up. I was not very wise at thirty, myself. Wiser than I was in my teens or twenties, but I’d be making a mistake to portray her with the wisdom of an elder.

I’d also be making a mistake if my characters’ errors are unsympathetic. I have to write this so the reader can feel the struggle. It’s not easy to love your enemies.

Reflections on Commitment, Listening, and Free Speech

On Saturday Jan. 21st, I got up at four-fifteen in the morning to drive through heavy fog to meet a bus with thirty-four other riders on it and found that so many people wanted to travel from this one small Virginia city that there were two buses at this site. More buses loaded at other locations. All over the country, people made trips like this, and many rose earlier and traveled farther.

On the trip, I sat with one of my yoga students, a retired teacher with years of experience herding middle-schoolers on field trips, and she was an inspiring as well as organized and helpful traveling companion. She has coped with her profound sadness about the election outcome by getting active, not only with calls and letters and donations, but by volunteering to help resettle refugees and to help feed the homeless. Every week she does something to remind herself that the world can be made a better place. Wherever we went Saturday, she radiated gratitude. She thanked the police and National Guard who were on security duty. She thanked the employee of the portapotty company who was cleaning a row of units where we stopped. She hugged our bus driver at the end of the trip.

A series of signs quoting Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us in almost all the front yards we passed as we walked from RFK stadium to the national mall. “I have decided to stick with love. Hatred is too great a burden to bear.” “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And many more. People waved from their yards. One played motivating classical music on speakers from upstairs windows. When we were dispersing later in the day, some residents came out in support again. One man brought a keyboard out in front of his townhouse and played for us.

Sometimes people give up and think their vote won’t matter or their voice won’t be heard, but the march was a visual illustration of the fact that every person does count. Hundreds of thousands of people decided, “I’ll show up,” and went to great lengths to do it. A Native Hawaiian group came all the way to D.C. If large numbers of the marchers had had said, “My presence doesn’t count. Someone else will show up and that will be enough,” the impact would not have been the same.

I’ve never seen so many people in one place with the same purpose, moved by their ideals and convictions. The pussycat-ears hats were ubiquitous, on men and women (and one very happy baby). Maybe that’s part of why everything was so upbeat and peaceful. Sending a message by wearing a funny-looking pink hat may keep you from acting like a big bad warrior. The major themes of the signs protesters carried were women’s rights, respect for all people, inclusiveness, opposition to bigotry, support for the Affordable Care Act, reminders that climate science is real, and inspiration and humor.

Inspiration: They thought they buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.

Without follow-up action, this is just a parade. No. Today is day one.

Build bridges, not walls.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (A quotation from Voltaire.)

Love trumps hate.

Humor: There’ll be hell toupee.

Putin Free.

I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea.

My personal favorite: Remember facts?

It can sound clichéd to say how diverse a group is, but this one really was. It included men and women, people of all ages from children to elders, people with disabilities, members of all races, people who were gay, straight, trans—you name it, they were there, and harmonious in each other’s company. I saw no uncivil behavior even when we got stuck in human gridlock on the mall for I don’t know how long—two hours? No violence, no arrests, and an amazing level of patience in a situation that could have brought out the worst in human nature. I was too far from the stage or the Jumbotron to hear a word the speakers said, but those of us on that part of the mall stayed upbeat and engaged. Aside from occasionally chanting “start this march” when we didn’t yet know we were too numerous to do it as planned, we passed our gridlock time making friends, reading the signs around us, singing and dancing and stretching and laughing. A popular call-and-response chant went like this: “Show me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!” This is what America looks like, too.

 People who disagreed with us were civil. Real life isn’t like the hostile land of social media. I didn’t notice any harassment. Non-marchers just walked on by. A group whose banner proclaimed they were Bikers for Trump had set up a small stage on a green off Pennsylvania Avenue. They didn’t have more than twenty people in their audience, mostly young women in the pink pussy hats who had—unwisely, I think—chosen to debate with them. We older and maybe wiser folks observed that the young women should just have left those guys alone. The bikers had as much right to be there as we did and they weren’t attacking us, just having their say. A genuine conversation with them could have been worthwhile, but understanding-focused dialogue is a learned skill.

Unskilled argument digs opponents in deeper. Maybe what the country needs next is a massive rally for listening, in which people from the various political islands can build bridges and have constructive dialogue. It would take courage. Participating in the mean-meme world of Twitter trolls takes no courage at all, no critical thinking, and no real attention, but meeting a fellow human face to face with commitment to show respect and compassion does.

One demonstrator’s sign bore a message I think all sides could agree with: Read More Books. The young man holding it was smiling.



Remembering his Radiance

One of my meditation teachers from my first yoga teacher training died this week. The message from his yoga center informed students that Goswami Kriyananda had left his body, suggesting the next stage of his soul’s journey rather than an end. I knew he was so far along in years that the parting was inevitably close, but I still felt sad. And then, strangely, I felt closer to him. The touch of his compassion and joy stays with me, reaching deeper than his words. He had the sweetest, sincerest, most humble and loving smile, glowing with both the playfulness of a child and the wisdom of an elder. I can access his teaching through books he wrote and recordings of his talks, but the lesson that affected me most was the heart-sense of his radiance.


This is an interview from 2008. It’s long, but it tells some of his story and outlook, if you’re interested.

The video on death, dying and rebirth is quite cheerful and uplifting. Regardless of your view of the nature of life after death, which may not be the same as his, you might appreciate the encounter with his personality and his philosophy. I watched it right before going to teach a college class and I think I was a happier and kinder person and a better teacher for having done so.



The past, the present and the future walk into a bar …

… and the bartender says, “this could get tense.”

The only stories we normally tell in present tense are jokes. It’s hard to stay in the present, either in telling a story or in daily life. I’ve been thinking about this because of two books I just read. One is Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, a Buddhist approach to psychology. The other is a short literary novel, Escaping Barcelona, which is written in the present tense. The pairing got me thinking about awareness of the present moment, narrative in the present tense, the nature of what’s in our minds, and whether or not the stuff which fills our heads makes for good fiction.

My freshman seminar students read The Wise Heart with me. One said the most valuable section of the book for him was the one on Delusion, especially the topic of inattention. In his words, “I know there are plenty of moments where I walk around lost in thought, not focusing on my surroundings, to the point that I’m basically sleepwalking.” Mind full, but not mindful.

In class, we did a thought-counting exercise from The Wise Heart. As we noticed our thoughts and began to find space between them, the messy and nonlinear nature of thinking showed up. Thought is seldom focused in the ongoing flow of experience. If consciousness is a stream, the water is full of floating debris: the repetitive cycle of “top ten thoughts” and stuck songs, digressions into past and future, sudden awareness of bodily processes, or commenting and judging and craving, interspersed with moments of clarity and attention.

In a May 2013 article in the New Yorker, Giles Harvey examined stream of conscious in literature from its early roots to the present. (I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article at Here are few of his observations I found relevant to my recent readings.

How much thought can a novel contain before bloating, or bursting, occurs?

 Does the pleasure we get from seeing the mind at work, or the illusion of seeing the mind at work, cover the cost of the tedium involved in reading this? Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless. …

 Minds are weird, without a doubt. But not everything that goes on in them is worth our attention.

Author Henry Martin has described Escaping Barcelona as being written in first person, present tense, stream of consciousness. It is intimate and internal, but no more so than any literary novel written in the past tense. Most of the book doesn’t resemble the actual stream of consciousness. Martin usually shows inner processes fluidly embedded in a compelling story. Once in a while he stalls for a long rant or ramble from the nineteen-year-old narrator, Rudy—and like most mental chatter, Rudy’s inner material, while authentic, isn’t profound. Overall, however, Martin avoids tedium, and his book is neither boring nor formless.

To achieve this, he has to compromise the flow of the present tense, which at times compromises the flow of the story. For around two thirds of the book—not a continuous two thirds—the present tense is inconspicuous as events take place in dramatic sequences with the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings smoothly integrated into them and the clutter filtered out. Rudy encounters situations that provoke intense awareness—new places and people, relief after deprivation, and danger. Such moments could be told effectively in the present tense in poetry or a short story. In a novel, though, the story takes place over time, and the author has to skip over the dull parts and cover the gaps with summaries as he would in the past tense. Because of the present tense wording, I found myself jerked out of the plot by the awkwardness these transitions and summaries. Some of these shifts implied the perspective that what was being narrated in the present tense took place in the past. I want to be fully absorbed when I read, and this distanced me from the story.

In one of the last chapters of The Wise Heart Kornfield gives detailed descriptions of the inner experience of deep concentrated attention, a state of consciousness few of us will ever reach. “With concentration, no matter where we place our attention, it will stay focused.” He explores how this translates into concentration on bodily sensation, on a wide-angle perspective on our whole experience, or on a feeling like loving-kindness. After years of study, a practiced meditator might be able to stay in a state like this for an hour or two. Such a person’s stream of consciousness could stay in the present moment, and with that expanded wide-angle attention, could make a readable, continuous story. Except, a person with that level of wisdom wouldn’t make a good fictional protagonist. He or she wouldn’t make impulsive decisions such as Rudy makes that get the events in Escaping Barcelona started.

On p. 247 in The Wise Heart. Kornfield quotes a Jungian teacher and analyst. “There is in life a vulnerability so extreme, a suffering so unspeakable, that it goes beyond words. In the face of such suffering all we can do is stand in witness, so no one needs to bear it alone.” Escaping Barcelona portrays one young man’s suffering and vulnerability, and asks the reader to stand witness.

I cared about Rudy. He goes through hell without losing his humanity, struggling to maintain what he can of his integrity in a situation that challenges him just to survive. When he gets his big “aha” about himself, it’s a lesson worth learning, though it’s one the reader can see coming long before it hits him. I suspect most of our life lessons are like this. Other people can perceive that we need them, but we can’t until we suffer. The value of a story like this is the engagement of compassion. Escaping Barcelona has many strengths, but sometimes I found myself watching the author write instead of living the protagonist’s struggles. I reached the end impressed by Rudy’s resilience and wishing him well in the next stage of his journey, but I won’t be reading the sequels unless there should be special past tense editions.

I’ll read The Wise Heart again. It has made me stop more often to examine my inner noise and find the stillness beneath it, conscious in the present moment.