Archive | imagination

Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

**********************

I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

**********************

I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 5: David Plays

There are no lights outside the Chief’s House, and Lesley and I follow David carefully up the uneven stone stairs to the grassy area (which I’d been eyeing jealously as a comfortable meditation spot) and around to the back of the house. It’s late at night, but the fog which had rolled in with the evening’s wind makes the darkness seem lighter somehow. Perhaps particles of starlight, colliding with particles of water, become diffused in the atmosphere, illuminating the darkness with infinite drops of fluorescent fog.

The cypresses wave and creak behind us, and I wonder if our Great-horned owls are watching us from the canopies, eyes yellow and bright, penetrating the shadows with ease. Raptor eyes, they had followed and hunted countless scurrying beasts like us in the mad scramble on the ground from one place of safety to the next. The inner mouse in me quakes at the thought of them taking off on their silent wings, gliding above us. Are they scrutinizing us, establishing our general height and weight, determining if they could — perhaps together? — grasp one of us in their claws and….

I know David’s been in the Chief’s House many times, but our quiet stumble and tiptoe to the back door seems somehow stealthy and clandestine, as though we are breaking in somewhere we’re not allowed. We seem to me, in fact, not much different from the two musicians in Some Like It Hot as they walk-crouch near the wall, covering themselves with their instruments, trying to seem inconspicuous as they run away from the police trap. I am carrying David’s violin, and he is carrying his mandolin and a guitar, so the reference is not quite as far-fetched as it would seem.

“The front door key doesn’t work,” David explains.

I am not surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if in order to get in David lifted a rock and broke the window in the back door, threaded his arm through the broken fragments, and opened the lock from the inside. My breath hitches, but David does not lift a rock. He pulls out a key, and the door swings open without a squeak or a groan.

The three artists who had stayed in the house for the past week had left earlier that day. I’d watched them in the days since we arrived at the Boathouse, a peek here and there, as they wandered the grounds. One carried a camera with a big lens. Another, young, had come to listen to a lecture and had stayed for lunch with us. The third I often saw near the docks where I meditated in the mornings. We, aspiring California Naturalists, had left them be. They had come to spend the week in retreat with the intention of growing creative and inspired, becoming nourished by sea and sand and wind. Now they’d gone home, perhaps to turn the inspiration into essays and poems, paintings, photographs, eternal works of art or books.

The house towers above us, windows tall and unlit. David puts two instrument cases down, reaches for his violin, and holds the door open for us. Lesley and I tramp in and find ourselves inside a small mudroom which opens to a kitchen and a spacious dining room beyond. The kitchen has white cabinets, old and crooked. No table or chairs. A refrigerator hums in the corner. It reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen when she lived in her old house in Tel Aviv. To my surprise, the rest of the house is beautifully furnished. I had expected it to look sparse, having heard from David that he had scrounged every single item himself from people he knows or at the office. I should have known better. This is David, after all, and the house is, therefore, lovingly decorated with attention to detail and comfort. There are paintings on the wall, apples in a bowl on a side table, and knick-knacks, suitably ocean-themed. David proudly leads us to a sitting room, the most beautiful room in the house, he says. He showcases the front porch and a window, from which, he says, we could see Drake’s Bay in the morning.

We follow David up the stairs to see the three bedrooms. None has a bathroom attached. The bathroom is downstairs, David tells us, and there is another one in the basement, but the basement had not been cleaned out yet.

“We could fit twelve people in here,” he says.

I wonder how. The beds are easily recognizable as halved bunk beds, perhaps from the Boathouse. One of the rooms, which both Lesley and David declare as their favorite, is so tiny as to be more like a monk’s cell than a room. I wonder what it’s like to walk downstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, to sleep in this haunted, groaning old house. What is it like to sleep in a house with a cellar which may still have remnants of inhabitants dead long ago, spider-webbed furniture, old photos strewn near a clothes chest that smells powerfully of dust?

Downstairs, Lesley and I settle on the sofa. I drag the ottoman toward us, and we both put our feet on it. David sits across from us near the dining table and brings out, in order, his mandolin, guitar, and violin. He plays and sings. The dining room is cheery, and David’s voice fills the silence of the house with a lively song. David wrote the words and the music to all the songs he’s singing for us, real and fantasy stories about his experiences mixed with commentary and dialog.

I don’t dance, but I wish I could. I let myself merge with the music, the old house, the nearness of new friends, the cypresses waving in the wind outside. Only one and a half  days are left in the class, and my mind and body are tired. Tired of not sleeping well, tired of being in close proximity with other people, of filling my head full of facts and names of things. I am happy to surrender to the sound of David’s music, to the notes twirling around the room in a jiggy dance. The house creaks gently. Rob, our cook’s partner, comes in and settles in a chair across from us. Later, the next day, I’ll discover he’s a backpacker, and my interest in talking to him will unfurl, but for now I am ready to leave and allow him to stay with David and talk about whatever it is men talk. Lesley and I make our way back around the house and under the cypresses and down the hill to the Boathouse. David’s cheerful music, the ominous creaking of the cypresses and the imaginary wings of silent owls hunting follow me into my sleeping bag and uneasy dreams.

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Walking My Dream

A few days ago I had an illuminating conversation with my daughter Eden. I had asked her, Would you like to hear about a dream I want to do?

She replied: “Does it include me?”

I said: No….

She said: “I don’t want to hear about it.” And then she added: “I think parents should only have dreams that include their kids.”

Not quite knowing how to react (were her words a cute thing to say or completely unfair?) I did not respond directly. At first I was blown away by the realization of just how much resistance I could expect from the kids when I tried to go for one of those dreams that do not include them. Then, after talking this over with my therapist, I was startled by another realization:

When my daughter has kids, if she still subscribes to this belief, she will think that she can only have dreams that include her kids, and if she has any dreams that do not include her kids, she will not follow them.

One of my dreams that does include my kids is that they will be free.

At least partly, I think, my kids watch me following my dreams. I’ve climbed mountains and gone on backpacking trips. Dar and I even ventured as far away as Prague and Israel without them. I try very hard, however, to fit the timing of fulfilling my dreams so that it does not disrupt the kids’ schedule. I go hiking and backpacking when they are with their dad. I went on a meditation retreat on dates that promised the least days away from them. I cancel anything if it interferes with their needs.

Me on top of Rainier

Me on top of Rainier

If I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2688-mile-long trail that traverses California, Oregon and Washington, I would not be able to fit it on the days that the kids are with their dad. I would not be able to be there if they had a cold. It would take me at least a day (or likely more) to get back if they needed me or if, heaven forbid, some emergency threatened them. I would be really, really far away.

But I would be walking my dream.

Some people have said to me: “Why don’t you wait till the kids are older? People hike the PCT even in their sixties.”

I don’t have an answer to the question, not a good one anyways. Except, of course, that I could say: When you look into your own heart, and touch your own dream, do you really want to wait for some imaginary better time to do it? Until the kids are older? Until you’ve retired? Until some made-up set of conditions are met? Or would you like to spread your wings today, now, this moment? Would you like, right now, to be free?

Next year, come May, I would like to spread my wings, pick up my backpack, and go hike the PCT. Uri will be almost 16. Eden will be 13. I will be 44. Dar will be kissing the other side of 50. I feel in my heart that it’s time, that I am ready for taking this freedom. In the last year I was beset by asthma, an inflammation in my foot, the flu, and back pain. I would like to follow my dreams now, while I still, maybe, can. While I’m still young enough and healthy enough and fit enough. While I still want those dreams. While they still mean something to me.

I hope that by walking my dream, my kids will see that dreams matter and that fulfilling them is as important as anything else we do in our brief, magical flash of life. I hope that my kids will learn and remember that they matter, and that while many things are important, so are those dreams that lie in their heart.

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The Runaway Novel

At 36,853 words, my novel has finally broken through all my attempts to control it, and it is now running amuck, making its own decisions and running its own show. I really intended, this time around, to be organized and meticulous. I was going to follow all my themes, keep track of all my characters, their names, and the relationships between them, and in general hold tightly to the reins of creativity in order to prevent my two most dreaded of problems: chaos and loss of control.

My novel and characters, however, had different ideas. “Creativity,” they said, “means just that, giving free reign to possibilities and opportunities, allowing growth and risking danger, being open to new ideas, and altogether letting go of, well, basically everything.” To them, apparently, creativity means that they can run around the novel doing whatever the fairies they want to do, using a lot of adverbs in the process, a big no-no in the writing industry today, with a special favorite being “suddenly.”

Suddenly, she saw this, and suddenly he did that, upon which, suddenly, that happened, suddenly, suddenly!

Seriously, it’s a disaster!

I had a completely different vision of writing the first draft. In my vision, the characters and the novel were all of them going to behave. They were going to be as polite and accommodating as notes on a sheet of music. Surely Mozart was not able to hold complete symphonies in his head by allowing the bassoon to run away with the flute. And I am sure Tolkien did not consent to have the dwarves and hobbits take over his plot. But somehow my characters think they can do whatever they want, and I am helpless to prevent it. Worse, a part of my seems to enjoy this train crash down creativity lane. She’s even pushing some of the train cars along!

Despite my intention to concentrate on just getting the first draft down on paper, I can’t help but be scared of what the novel will look like when that first draft is done. I fear it’s going to be a huge, big balloon of a mess, with a lot of scenes that the characters insisted on, but which make no sense in the plot, and with a lot of themes missing or characters showing up unannounced. How will I ever revise this into anything that makes sense? How would I ever revise it into one homogenous novel? There is a reason why twenty people don’t sit together and write the same novel all at once.

At the same time, the train-crash accomplice part of me is not just participating in the chaos but luxuriating in it. She’s throwing words in the air like confetti, wanting to write more and more and more. 36,853 words in sixteen days really is a great accomplishment. And so far, knock on wood, I managed to keep the critic at bay. I sent him to Hawaii where he’s relaxing next to the pool. Every day, however, he texts me to ask: “Nu? (He’s a bit Yiddish, I think) Are your words any good?”

I don’t want to think about whether the words are any good right now, or about the upcoming revision, or even about whether there will be a revision (of course there will. I feel there will). I just want to write, and if half of my words are suddenly then so be it. The other half might very well be diamonds waiting to be unwrapped.

I’m not sure what is making this novel come out so happily and easily (relatively happily and easily, and pardon the adverbs) out of me. Perhaps participating in NaNoWriMo is motivating me to write, and perhaps I was just ready. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s an endpoint, a date after which I don’t have to stress over 1666 words a day, and perhaps I am creating a habit right now, and I’ll keep going this way, like Stephen King, forever, churning one novel after another till I die. I don’t know yet, and I guess I’m happy being in the unknowing right now. Right now, all that matters is the next scene, the next surge of words, bringing those characters, this novel alive.

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Fool’s Leap

Let’s build a box together,
Shall we?
One side made up of limitations
The second expectations
The third is disappointments
The fourth frustrations
The top from judgements
The bottom from beliefs
With some nails, scattered on the floor,
To symbolize our fears.

Let’s build a box together
A box to keep us small
To keep us safe from any need to
Grow
Expand
Or fly
Can you imagine flying in this box?
The nails shaking up a storm inside
The walls closing in
Crashing imminent.

Willing to give
Anything, anything at all
Just so there would be
No
Crashing.

And yet
What if
By crashing
Something new could come
Something fertile
Something blooming
Something green
And red
And pink
And yellow
And colorful all over?
What if
By crashing
The walls could disappear
And then
I
Could
Fly?

I’m listening to OneRepublic’s music in my car
Safe in the box
Safe in the car
Safe in my fears
But the music is beating, beating, beating
Calling me out of the box
And I find myself squirming
One part a sedate, responsible driver
The other dancing with the beat.
I want to leap out and explode
Instead of staying stuck
In this hurtling metal car
Inside of staying stuck
In my own self-built box.

Dancing, dancing, singing, dancing
My spirit’s hands reach up and out
Fingers tickling the stars
Sending storms into the stratosphere
I need to dance so I can write
I need to sing so I can write
I need more space
No box can fit
I dance and sing and sing and dance
With this creative, freedom trance.

The metal box, its speed, are gone
And in their place my soul explodes
To outer space, creating storms
Bringing blessed rain and more
Flowers, fruit, a golden shower
Words to fill out seven novels
Words to fill the heart with joy
I knew somewhere, somewhere within
This passion smoldered hid
Awaiting a single lighted match
To give it this release
Into a fool’s trusting leap.

And now,
What now?
No change.
No change at all.
After all,
That’s who I was,
You know,
Before.

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On Originality, Influence, and Plagiarism

naomi shemerMy mother sent me an article the other day about a popular Israeli song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” written by Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s preeminent songwriters. This song is such a staple of Israeli musical and Zionist culture that I am certain that any Israeli you meet, independent of how musically inclined, would be able to sing from memory and on the spot at least the first stanza and the chorus. This claim probably includes most second-generation Israelis living abroad. “Jerusalem of Gold” has over 3 million hits on the web, including its own English-language website, and countless videos on youtube. I especially recommend the video I found in the article, sung by Shuli Nathan.

Many Israeli songs I know seem to have in their origin Russian folk music. In the article my mother sent, the journalist, Avner Hoffstein, mentions his discovery that Naomi Shemer borrowed the music to this song from a Basque folk song. Fourteen years ago, Hoffstein confronted Naomi Shemer about the similarity between her music and the folk song, but Shemer insisted that she has never heard that song before. After her death a decade ago, a letter was published in which Shemer acknowledges the influence. Scandalous? Surprising? I can’t say that I’m shocked.

When listening to popular music, I often wonder how the songwriters avoid repeating the musical themes which have been written before them. Here and there, I can hear a melody which reminds me of another song, by another band or singer. Is it a tribute to this other singer? Is it influence? When is using another person’s material a salute to that person’s genius and when does it become that dreaded word, plagiarism?

As an aspiring author, I have heard over and over again the advice to read a lot. Read everything you can in your field. Be familiar with what readers enjoy and love. This advice, however, is always tempered by the caution: Write what you know. Be true to your own voice. In the past, I’ve noticed (and sometimes was irritated by) authors using elements from another writer’s work. Most notably, in the Harry Potter books, I was annoyed by how J. K. Rowling built the school so like the wizardry school in Ursula K. LeGuin’s infinitely wiser A Wizard of Earthsea. On Wikipedia, I found the following comment: “Le Guin has claimed that she doesn’t feel Rowling ‘ripped her off,’ but that she felt that Rowling’s books were overpraised for supposed originality, and that Rowling ‘could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original.’”

There is a myth about writing that says that everything’s already been written. Now, all we poor hopefuls can do is repeat the same themes and stories and try to do it in as fresh, edgy, humorous, or newly insightful way as we can. Some works, in fact, use as an inspiration (or even clearly follow) a particular story, as in the many Pride and Prejudice novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which came out in 2009), or novels like Cinder, which rewrite a popular folktale (in this case, Cinderella). You could argue that many romance novels follow the exact same script: boy meets girl; something prevents boy and girl from coming together; boy and girl come together; a secret is revealed which causes the boy and the girl to separate; boy and girl find a way to come together again in a happy ending.

I googled “famous authors who have been accused of plagiarism” on the web, and found some interesting stories. Helen Keller, for example, was accused of plagiarism in her short story, “The Frost King.” According to Wikipedia, this caused the young Keller to be so worried about plagiarism in her later writing that it inspired her to write her autobiography. That, indeed, seems safe enough to assume, would all be original enough material. Martin Luther King was also accused of plagiarizing his dissertation. Other people whose names I recognized included artist Andy Warhol, authors Dan Brown and Stendahl, and songwriter George Harrison. I can’t help but think that, if Naomi Shemer plagiarized the music to her famous song, she seems to me to be in pretty respectable company….

I am not, of course, condoning, suggesting, or defending copying other people’s work. I do, however, want to point out the difficulty of being completely original in our world of crazily-available media. Creators, whether consciously or unconsciously, probably cannot help but model their characters, lyrics, music, or words on what is going on around them, on this absolute bombardment of creativity that is going on in our world. Gorgeous work is being born on a daily basis, and, mostly, its originality astounds me every minute of every day. Since we don’t live in a vacuum, the delicate boundary between influence and plagiarism needs to be kept and maintained, and, perhaps most importantly, credit, as LeGuin so aptly said, should always be given. My admiration for Naomi Shemer’s work is the same despite her having (probably) borrowed elements from another song. I do wish, however, that she had admitted it and given credit to the original before the discovery by Hoffstein.

Read the article, in Hebrew, by Avner Hoffstein.

Listen to the Basque folk song.

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Reading by Savoring

This morning, I googled to see if the word voracious has a verb form. I couldn’t think of  one myself: to vorace? voracify? vore? Turns out that though voracious does not, in fact, come as a verb in English, its Latin origin was vorare, which means to devour. I guess, then, that I can say “I am a voracious reader of books,” but I am limited in English to, “I devour books voraciously.”

I used to be quite proud of my voracious appetite for books. My mother’s extensive library was filled with novels like Lin Yutang’s Moment in Peking and Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff, both of which tantalized me with their romance, tragedy, and promise of faraway lands. I would likely have gone through all our books in a year if it weren’t for the school library and the public library, both of which contributed to my reading addiction with such classics as King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

My love for books has not abated with the years. I often read 3-4 books at the same time, unless I get sucked irrevocably into one, and then I cannot put it down till it is finished. This happened to me most recently with A.C. Gaughen’s Lady Thief, the second Scarlet novel. I read the book in three seatings, rushing through it with baited breath, hardly pausing to turn a page. Now it is done, and I am left with a somewhat unsatisfied feeling. Had I even enjoyed the book? I ask myself. Was it good? And though I couldn’t put it down, I find I am not sure of the answer.

The word savor really ought to be the antonym of devour (or vorare). Savoring a book would be to enjoy the effect of its words, combination of words, collection of sentences. It would be to allow the trees of Sherwood Forest to rise in my imagination out of the snowy ground, to watch Scarlet slinking, nearly invisible, from tree to tree, barely leaving footmarks in the snow. It would be to change my reading habits, to pause, close my eyes, and be there on the scene. It would mean letting go of the need to know what’s next, of how the story will end.

I’ve been listening in the car again to Okay for Now, Gary D. Schmidt’s fabulous novel. Perhaps because I am unable to force the reader, Lincoln Hoppe, to read faster, perhaps because he reads so beautifully, and perhaps because I’ve read the book before, I’ve been able to savor every word, every moment. I even rewinded the story a few times to make sure I didn’t miss a word. I would very much like to change my habit and apply this savoring, this luxuriating in another author’s work, to every book I read. To paraphrase a suggestion from author James Baraz: I’d like to pick up each book and ask myself: why did the writer feel compelled to write this book, what made him or her invest so much time, attention, and love, into this particular creation?

Everywhere, we are inundated with messages telling us to enjoy every moment of life, to savor even time spent standing in line or being stuck in traffic. Thinking about my voraciousness as a reader made me wonder if the change in reading habits I am contemplating can also apply to my way of tackling life. In some situations, just as in listening to Lincoln Hoppe read, I can relax into the rhythm and savor life. In other situations, I get caught up in worry and fear and rush ahead in order to know what happens next, what will be the end. But the end is just that, the end. An end in which I am left with a somewhat unsatisfactory feeling and can’t really tell if I had enjoyed the book, the wait at the dentist’s office, or dinner with Dar, or if I just allowed the moment to pass me by.

Luckily for me, I am heading today to a National Seashore nearby for a backpacking trip, the perfect opportunity to slow down, savor the moment, reconnect with who I am inside. I am taking a book with me, of course, which I started reading with the intent of savoring. It is Terry Lynn Johnson’s Ice Dogs, and I don’t think I could have chosen a better book both for the adventure of being outdoors and the possibility of savoring life.

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1

Morning Gratitude

My daughter’s cheek crinkled on the pillow
Oh so warm
A smile opens her eyes

My son giggling
Ima, come! He calls
Knowing I will kiss him

The lemony, fresh scent of a cucumber and tomato salad
Slicked with olive oil
Crumbly with goat feta

Three puppies gazing at me with round eyes
Tails going wildly
Love me, love me, love me

Our five chickens
Softly pecking corn scratch off the brown soil
Clucking in pleasure

Bells tinkling in the breeze
Play of light and leaves through oak trees
Patches of sunshine on the ground

A solitary teardrop tomato
On a confused vine
Growing side by side in a pot with aloe vera

Listening tomatoto my heart beat
Breath in, breath out
Sometimes calm, sometimes stormy.

A body, moving
Where did it come from?
Touching it in wonder.

The fragility of life
In the clucking of chickens
The tinkling of bells
A breeze, one moment here, the next, where?
How long does a kiss last?
Knowing the sun will set and shade disappear in shadow
But for now, what do I need?
Biting into a sun-warm teardrop tomato and singing
My morning gratitude.

4

The Price of Passion

Uri’s main competition for my love.

Writers often claim that they write because they must. Why else would we write? Riches and fame, after all, are rarely the results. I have struggled with the inexplicable need to write for at least ten years, writing in bursts and sinking into doom and gloom when no writing comes. Having noticed the connection between not writing and my bouts of depression, I’ve made an effort to get some writing time every day. I channel my creativity into the blog when the novel seems too complicated an endeavor, and I’ve come to realize that the feeling I called depression was actually frustration in disguise.

Realizing how important writing is to me was only one tiny step. Ahead loomed a greater obstacle, so great, in fact, that terrified and ashamed, for a long time I preferred not to look it in the face. Even now, it seems to me both a ridiculous and crucial obstacle: my all-important mother-hood. Turns out that after all these years, I still doubt that I can be a mother and a writer at the same time.

My imagination, my creativity press on the dam of fears I’d built, lashing against it, trying to force a way out. When I write, I often don’t hear the children talking to me. I forget to tell them to go to sleep or to make them food. What will happen if I let all the passion of writing out from behind the carefully controlled dam? What if writing and novels and ideas will come rushing out in a great flood, overcoming everything? Will the mother mountain stay intact?

Yesterday my son accused me, “You love your book more than you love me.” I burst out laughing. I spend so much energy on being afraid that the kids will suffer because of my writing, and here he is blaming me for exactly what I fear the most. Except, he wasn’t talking about my novel, the one I am writing. He was talking about the ultra fascinating and unputdownable Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore.

Okay, so I admit that yesterday I was reading Bitterblue instead of playing with him lacrosse. And I was reading Bitterblue instead of paying him attention. And I was reading Bitterblue in the doctor’s office while we waited though he had nothing to do. But in one moment, with those funny and yet truthful words, Uri gave me glimpse of perspective about my great parenting-writing fear. Just a glimpse, mind you.

I have a feeling that if I let the dam loose the mother mountain will still stand safe and sure. I have a feeling that if I stop putting on the break with my writing, I will have more energy to spend both on my writing and the kids. And I have a feeling that it’s good for the kids to know that there’s more to their mother than just being a mother. It’s just a feeling. But I think perhaps it’s true.

Do you have a passion in your life, that makes you oblivious to the rest of the world?

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109