Wednesday, November 30, 2011


About 15 years ago, I wrote an essay about an experience I had on Halloween when among the trick or treaters at my front door was a man who asked me for money so he could take his kids out for hot dogs. I won't tell you how I responded to him, but the experience did lead to essay, and the piece was published in the Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative paper. I called the essay "What the Halloween Man Brought," but the Reader folks changed it to "What You Give and What You Get."
     The essay begins by telling the story of the man coming to my door, and then moves into my response right there at the moment as well as in the weeks that followed, as ruminating and perplexity are significant parts of my MO. Most of the essay is structured around the eight dimensions of charitable giving, as articulated by Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish scholar, in his Guide for the Perplexed. That's him right there.

Here is the list of eight dimensions: 
1. Giving reluctantly or with regret
2. Giving less than one should, but with grace.
3. Giving what one should, but only after being asked.
4. Giving before one is asked.
5. Giving without knowing who will receive it, though the recipient knows the identity of the giver.
6. Giving anonymously (the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver).
7. Giving so that neither the giver nor receiver knows the identity of the other.
8. Helping another to become self-supporting.
For the past few years, my friend Tom, who teaches writing at College of DuPage has used this piece in his class. He likes it because it begins with an incident from real life and also sets out the process of reflecting on that incident and coming to write about it. Even better, it has a very visible and explicit structuring device (the eight dimensions). So it works well in his class (at least I think it does), and after the class has read and discussed the piece, Tom always has me come to his class to give a reading and engage in a discussion with the students. Every time I go to Tom's class, I have a great time, and come away very energized and impressed with the students. This year was no exception. I went a few days before Halloween, and I came equipped with a big plastic pumpkin full of candy.

As usual, the students were very lively, and their questions very thought-provoking, but they did not eat as much candy as I had hoped or expected.
     Anyway, the point of all this is that about a week ago, Tom emailed me an essay written by one of his students in response to my essay. The student is named Nathan Bassett, and his essay is completely wonderful and clever and funny, as he turned my whole thing on its head and called his "Eight Ways of Taking."
He structured his piece much like mine, including around the "eight ways":
1. Taking reluctantly or with regret.
2. Taking more than one should, but with grace.
3. Taking only what one needs.
4. Taking by guilting the giver into being a giver.
5. Being asked to take.
6. Taking what is lost or Ground Scoring.
7. Taking from an anonymous donator, benefactor, or spontaneous nudist.
8. Taking from another to become self supportive.
I'd love to find a way or a place to have the two pieces published together--to show what's possible and what can come of one small life incident, even all these years later. Ideas?

Friday, November 25, 2011


In my novel, I am working on a scene in which an act of magic occurs. I was going to call it a trick, but as soon as I wrote that here, I changed my mind because the word seems to diminish the act or experience or whatever it is. Whatever I call it, as I write and refine and shape this scene, I have been thinking about magic more, and more deeply, than I usually do.
     The thing I've been thinking has to do with the audience and the conflict I/we feel between wanting to know "how it's done"--to get behind the scenes and catch-out the "trick"--versus wanting magic to exist, to be a real thing that occurs in the world, to let go of our rational inquiring minds, to feel wonder, to submit.
I have seen magicians "do" things that seemed truly impossible--that defied laws of time/space/gravity. I have read discussions about the psychology of magic and the limits of human perceptions, including this definition of magic from the astounding Teller: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”
     The human mind is a mysterious thing--as is the human heart. We want to believe yet we don't want to be fooled. In writing a scene in which magic occurs, I don't have to contend with the laws of time/space/gravity in quite the way that a "real" magician does. After all, in the case of writing, it's all just dots on a page. But what could be more magical that that--creating a whole world built of dots on a page?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Blessing on the God/Muse Frustration

Last night on NPR, I heard the interview with Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, about his wife's ongoing recovery. There is plenty to say about all of that, but my focus tonight is frustration, a discomfort that we are all familiar with.

Mark Kelly said that although his wife has made enormous strides since her traumatic brain injury last January, she gets frustrated with the slow progress and her limitations. Who can blame her? He also described a moment in the hospital when she first seemed to realize that she couldn't speak, and the terrible panic and agitation that overcame her. One can only imagine what that realization must have felt like.
     Here's the thing he said about frustration that struck me:
You know, she struggles. She gets frustrated. I have to remind her that that's a good thing.
You know, getting frustrated--from what I understand--is one of those things that's helped rebuild those connections in her brain, is that frustration. So we try to make sure that she's frustrated.
 Ah-ha, I thought, frustration as a motivator and a repairer. You're on the verge, says the frustrated brain, so hard at work. Go tear out your hair, but then get back to it. You're almost there. Don't abandon me now.

I wonder if it's always the hair they're tearing out because the hair is so close to the brain.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some Colors

are just beyond words.
Oh you can say orange or red or purple. You can say brown. You can even get a little fancy and say fuchsia. But admit it, that does not even come close to what nature herself can pull off.

Several years ago, when I had a writing residency at Ragdale, an arts colony in Illinois, my friend Laura came to visit me one afternoon. It was early November, and I was working on my novel, Grand River and Joy. Ragdale sits on 55 acres of pristine prairie, and Laura and I went out to walk on some of those acres. We saw many beautiful sights along the way, including many beautiful leaf-colors.

I was telling Laura how hard it was, sometimes, to find the right words, to describe something--say, the color of a fall leaf. I told her that when I looked at the work of the visual artists in residence at Ragdale, I felt a little jealous, because they used color in a different way. They didn't have to find the words for it; they just put it out there. Of course, they might have to find the right color, or mix the right color, know color theory, and so on. But how does one find the words?

I still remember Laura holding a "red" leaf against her palm, so we could both ponder it. I don't remember what she said, but I remember that moment--one leaf against her palm. To illustrate the transformative magic of the creative process, here is how that experience showed up in my novel--toward the end of chapter 1.

The leaves would be clinging and falling and twirling along Outer Drive, the big boulevard that crossed Harry’s block, and adorning the grand houses, carpeting their lawns in colors so startling they had no names, unless you made them up—like raspberry parfait or Tropicana burnt orange, or translucent copper-pink.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cultural Diversity

To glean, in the strictest reading of the word, is to gather grain left behind by reapers. The Gleaners, above, is a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. The Gleaners and I is a documentary by Agnes Varda. As described in the New York Times in 2000, Varda "crisscrossed the French countryside with a hand-held digital video camera and a small production crew, in search of people who scavenge in potato fields, apple orchards and vineyards, as well as in urban markets and curbside trash depositories. Some are motivated by desperate need, others by disgust at the wastefulness all around them and others by an almost mystical desire to make works of art out of things -- castoff dolls, old refrigerators, windshield wipers -- that have been thrown away without a second thought."
     Yesterday, when I went for my walk, I took a trash bag with me, specifically to collect candy wrappers, as on the days following Halloween, this form of litter is particularly prominent. I do not put myself in the category of a gleaner in this sense, as I am not collecting for reuse but for appropriate disposal. Nonetheless, two women saw me pick something up, and one said, "You're picking up leaves. Why?" Which prompted me to explain, and them to exclaim, and they were visiting from New York, touring the Frank Lloyd Wright homes and so forth. I gave them some tips on where to eat and what to see in my town and in Chicago, and we parted ways.
     Now we come to the gleaning part of the story, and eventually to the cultural diversity. In my town, we have many ginko trees. I'm not going to get into a big research project about ginkos, but I do see from Wikipedia that they are an ancient form (around at the time of the dinosaurs), and the oldest ones are in Asia--China, Korea, and Japan. It does have an unusual and beautiful leaf.

Ginko trees come in male and female varieties. And in the fall, the female variety produces what the experts call a seed but what to me looks like a fruit.

That is an idealized portrait, I think. As they age and fall to the ground, which they do as autumn progresses and just before people step on them, they look more like this.

The odor of the mashed glop on the sidewalk is intensely musky, but that does not quite capture it. Some people say "stinko ginko." I wish I were better at describing odors, and right now, I wish I were better at describing that odor.
     About a month ago, my neighbor who has a large ginko tree on her side lawn told me that every fall, an Asian man knocks on her door and asks if he can collect the dropped ginko seeds. Of course, she always says yes because she is happy to have them gone before they all get smashed on her sidewalk and tracked into her house on people's shoe bottoms, perfuming her life.
     "What does he want them for?" I asked.
     "I don't know," she said. "They make some kind of food from it."
     Some blog reader will now tell me that they've known about this for years, and where have I been all my life, but that was the first I'd heard of it. Oh, I know that I could in one instant google to find out precisely what kind of food someone would make from those astonishingly fragrant seeds, and how they would go about it, and what fragrances would be wafting through the house as they did, and what the end result would be. But I'll just leave that task to someone else.
     In the meantime, twice since my neighbor told me about this (but never before that), while I was out walking, I saw an Asian woman (the same one twice), stooped down near a ginko tree, a small paper bag beside her, picking carefully through the grass and leaves, gleaning ginko seeds.