Friday, September 30, 2011

Mother Teresa Meets Lady Diana

Photo by Robyn Beattie
I’ve had Mother Teresa on my mind ever since I discovered writer Liz Brennan four years ago. Liz keeps a jewel of a blog, each post a wisp of haiku length reflection, titled Perhaps, Maybe.

Liz is the primary reason I’ve been able to keep writing the last four years; we meet weekly to lend one another books and discuss drafts of our poems. Every once in awhile, I have the pleasure of reading Liz’s Mother Teresa prose poetry. A construct of Liz’s imagination, this alternate Mother Teresa struggles as a single mother, attempting to be saint of the mundane whether she’s surviving an exchange with a bad clerk at the post office, eating noodles from her take-out container while driving, or sprinting to intercept the meter maid.

In turn, I’ve subjected Liz to my drafts of She Dressed in a Hurry, for Lady Di (along with a number of other personae poems) until mercifully the poem was published at Salome Magazine and parked at The Mom Egg in its micro-movie version, leaving Liz free to move on to dissecting drafts of Nefertiti.

This summer, while attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Summer 2011 retreat for women writers, I had the opportunity to get closer than ever to Mother Teresa through Mary Johnson’s spiritual quest memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life. Johnson, after serving 20 years as a Missionary of Charity, found reasons to leave the sisterhood. In Unquenchable Thirst, she lets us in behind the scenes with the real Mother Teresa.

Which brings me back to Liz Brennan’s Mother Teresa poems (one of which recently appeared in ZYZZYVA, hardcopy only, sorry--I'd love to give you a link to her poem). At one point in Unquenchable Thirst, Johnson describes a meeting between Lady Diana and Mother Teresa. Liz and I, with that hopeless kind of hyper-synaptic, associative observation that tends to dog writers, were tickled the subjects of our individual poems, Lady Diana, and Mother Teresa, met between the covers of Mary’s book, in real time, once upon a time, not so long ago.

On a more serious note, my review of Unquenchable Thirst appears here on the AROHO Speaks website, as well as on Mary Johnson's site where she hosts a salon and invites us all to join a thriving discussion focused on the book (with changing topics, most recently, on faith and sexuality).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Barbara Ann Yoder

Barbara Yoder, photo by Michelle Wing
A Room of Her Own Foundation's Summer 2011 Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico proved to be a powerful and inspiring gathering of 90 women. I am excited to be part of an interview team with the primary goal of sharing, as best we can-- via interview--highlights from the retreat, writer to writer. I rubbed shoulders with Barbara Yoder at the retreat when we volunteered to sell books before one of the evening readings. I am so pleased to introduce you to her here.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m writing a creative guide to overcoming self-censorship. The book interweaves memoir, myths, tales, and dreams with writing prompts and exercises designed to help women explore their inner lives and develop a gentle, supportive approach to writing.

How did you find your way to the subject of self-censorship and, in particular, the issue of self-censorship in women’s writing?

In the process of writing my first book another lifetime ago, I came face to face with my insecurities, compulsions, fears, perfectionism, impatience, self-tyranny, and many other bugaboos that made it difficult for me to write. After a whirlwind publicity tour for The Recovery Resource Book—replete with TV, radio, and print interviews—I went into therapy. I felt estranged from my creative center. I yearned for connection.

During my therapy years, I broke through my rigidity and fears, learned to build myself up rather than tear myself down, wrote journals and essays and stories, got an MFA in creative writing, and taught creative writing to adults in my community. I worked particularly closely with beginning women writers, and in them I saw some of the same self-censoring beliefs with which I had grappled. These issues appeared in my male students as well, but they were especially pronounced in the women. I wanted to know why.

Over the years I have come to believe that it is the cultural pressures women face, the stereotypes we see every day in the media and the misogynistic attitudes that have been passed down to us through the generations, that make us doubt ourselves and guard our voices carefully.

What myths and tales are you are working with and how did you choose them?

The book explores four major stories: “The Marriage of Psyche and Eros,” “Bluebeard,” the creation myth of the Garden of Eden, and the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In addition to retelling the stories, I interpret them in terms of personal, creative, and psychological growth, and I invite readers to write about the stories in those terms.

I didn’t choose the stories as much as they chose me. In my quest to break through self-censorship I embarked on a serpentine journey into my mythic depths. In addition to being in therapy, I read myths, tales, and scholarly and popular work about women’s psychology and spirituality. While I was in graduate school, I began retelling tales, and years after I finished school and therapy, I resumed telling and interpreting tales and making fiction out of them.

When I put the four stories together, I found that they formed a mythic foundation women could use to cultivate their inner Eros, transform the tyrant within, and embrace an affirming, sacred, empowered femininity. Together they offered deep and creative ways to overcome self-censorship.

Can you give us some examples of how you link the exercises to the tales?

Exercises—including meditations, visualizations, and writing prompts—relate closely to story characters and themes. The major and minor characters—Psyche, Eros, Aphrodite, Pan, Bluebeard, Mrs. Bluebeard, Eve, Persephone, Demeter, Hades, Rhea—are fun to work with. As we consider their behavior and explore the movement of the stories from creative, literary, feminist, and psychological perspectives, we come to know ourselves better and to discover our own stories.

Each tale also raises intriguing questions and offers many levels of meaning that will bring up memories, fantasies, images, dreams, and other material readers can explore in their journals and in their creative writing. With Psyche and Eros, there are exercises examining passion, jealousy, and the journey to the underworld. With Bluebeard we deconstruct the ways in which the archetypal abuser operates in our inner lives and our writing. With Eve we explore blame and guilt. With Demeter and Persephone, we look at our connection to the mother. My goal is to help women go deeply and gently into their material, write past their fears, and tell their tales with authenticity and passion.

How has the 2011 AROHO retreat changed you?

Before I came to the retreat, I felt isolated, unsure of my direction, ambivalent about my book, and worried about being such a late bloomer.

During the retreat, I made connections with women I admire and respect—women I’ve come to love—friendships that will last a lifetime. All week the women asked me what I was working on. They really cared, and that made all the difference.

As I talked with them, listened to their stories and presentations, shared challenges and insights, soaked up their wisdom, I felt that I had arrived. I was at home. I had a community—the kind of community I’d long been craving. I got clear on my direction. I knew that it was not too late for me; in fact, I was exactly on time, ready, willing, and energized to move into the next phase of my life as a writer.

Tell us about a woman writer who inspired you.

All of the women at the retreat inspired me!

Marilynne Robinson said, “All you need to do to be original is to consult deeply in yourself,” and I did.

Marsha Pincus helped me to break through my resistance and gather the courage to send my manuscript to readers.

Pat Fowler showed me the challenge of climbing Chimney Rock and led me to the top.

Sandra Hunter held my hand and made me laugh; I can see her chimneying up the canyon walls, a powerful image of accomplishment.

Bhanu Kapil showed me how to make a clay goddess, and the red earth pulsed in my hand.

Ruth Thompson led one of the best yoga classes I’ve ever attended, with a visualization that helped me sink my roots into the earth.

Kumkum Malik gave a meditation that was so powerful it has stayed with me. Today I can hear her calming voice inside me and it’s my voice, too: “I can do it.”

Barbara Ann Yoder is a freelance writer, editor, writing teacher, and coach who has a room of her own at home. Her fiction has appeared in Natural Bridge, and The Worcester Review, and she is the author of The Recovery Resource Book. She formerly served as executive director of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and was a senior editor at National Writing Project.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Every Wife Could Use Her Own Hmong Tribe (and a Thundershirt)

I have watched women all over the world weave over examined myths and cautionary tales about their marriages, in all sorts of mixed company, and at the slightest provocation. But the Hmong ladies did not seem remotely interested in doing that. Nor did I see these Hmong women crafting the character of “the husband” into either the hero or the villain in some vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self (p. 37)—Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

I’m sitting between two strangers, tears streaming down my cheeks, on a Southwest airlines flight. Fifteen rows back, my husband’s likely mildly irritated he lost his A seat status, maybe rummaging around for his free drink coupon. I’m surreptitiously wiping the tears away, aware that my sunglasses offer ridiculously thin cover for the way I’m melting down in public.

I’ll be deplaning in Albuquerque alone, my husband will fly home to California to kiss our three children and proceed with his two-city, two-job frenzy while caring for the kids, which accounts for why he forgot to book me home from the wedding we flew to the night before. Which means I’ll head to the high desert with wedding attire sans materials for teaching and presentations I’ll need for the eight day AROHO women's writing retreat I’m scheduled to attend at Ghost Ranch. My first week away from the kids in 10 years—my first passionate attempt at re-entering the writing world with others of like mind: A Big Deal.

As I work to stuff the upset threatening to burgeon into full body sobbing, an image keeps appearing in my head of the Thundershirt I saw an ad for on our flight the day prior—dogs wear them, and autistic children. Without an ounce of disrespect or humor, I’m considering ordering one (for the comfort of straight jacket minus confines of institution) to help me withstand the maelstrom that’s become the norm in our household.

I figure if I’m worried that this Thundershirt idea is a sign I’m losing it, I’m still ok enough to not lose it. Barely--a familiar vertigo coursing through my adrenals…the usual over-exertion, over-giving, over-analyzing. I’m in my 40s, I’m not a victim, and I don’t care to put a label on my husband or myself...but I do desperately want to move forward together, simple and productive like yoked oxen.

For now, the oxen are rear to rear and kicking, no yoke in sight. I feel like Ferdinand the Bull on the page where he sits on a bee (a family favorite, Ferdinand, with its droll illustrations that convey so much with such simple strokes, and for the subtle humor: corks hanging from the cork tree, the mother cow’s tender worry levitating still towards her massive bull-child).

By the time the stewardess brings my ginger ale, I’m thinking, so what, the husband forgot to book me on his flight, so what we can’t use the companion pass, our itinerary for the weekend risky from the get-go: a wedding in Chicago Saturday night, a return trip to California to repack, a return flight for me to Albuquerque at 3 am between Sunday and Monday.

And to make matters worse, two minutes before heading into the wedding venue, my husband received a text informing him that one of his San Diego roommates went down in a helicopter that crashed (taking with it 22 lives). Our delayed anniversary date fell apart as we tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with the sorrow of those lives lost while toasting the marriage of my beautiful cousin and her groom.

In Albuquerque, my husband buys me a tiny Yin-Yang necklace to help assuage my feelings of invisibility, 3ds our need to balance our male and female ways of meeting our days. In my room at Ghost Ranch, I find comfort in the image seconding itself already in the form of the tiny round mirror over my dresser. By crouching down low, I’m able to capture the half black, half white image.

In the small blogging group I signed up to facilitate, when we sit and write to the images we photographed for the day, I write, “Half black, half white, still arriving, a pale echo of the yin yang, surreal, my husband gave me to help me cross out of anger about being forgotten. There remains more light than dark, two fan blades extending into the dark. The border’s dimples, pearl deep perforations, decorate but do not fully cut open or apart the holder, frame, of mirror. I am not in the picture yet, nor desire to be. I am still arriving.”

It took four more days to fully arrive. Surrounded by a phenomenal web of women writers, my own emotional Hmong Tribe, how could I not come out of the marriage’s dilemmas? I shelved forgiving my husband for engaging in the present, integrating a new definition of “husband” Elizabeth Gilbert posits in her book Committed after observing the way the Hmong women of Northern Vietnam spend their days supporting one another, without the least expectation that their husband be everything to them. Their days, rooms, and routines are full of sisters, aunts, grandmothers.

Gilbert sums up one grandmother’s response to the question, “is your husband a good husband?” : Her husband was neither a good husband nor a bad husband. He was just a husband…As she spoke about him, it was as though the word “husband” connoted a job description, or even a species, far more than it represented any particularly cherished or frustrating individual. The role of husband was simple enough, involving as it did a set of tasks that he man had obviously fulfilled to a satisfactory degree throughout their life together,---as did most other women’s husbands, she suggested, unless you were unlucky and got yourself a real dud (p. 41).

(For the record, I wouldn't trade my husband. And what would my job description look like as wife, were he to write it? You have to read the rest of Committed to appreciate the humor and context here. But I loved that Gilbert goaded me to recalibrate, reconsider, how much unecessary pressure I might bring to bear on every nuance of my interactions with my husband. Certainly being a writer means everything gets scrutinized metaphorically, metaphysically, long into the wee hours of the night in the chambers of my little mind when I'd be better off dreaming my way to solutions.)

Gilbert rightly hints in the quote above that you can feel the vast psychological chasm between this kind of an answer (to the question, "is your husband a good husband?") and the one you’d get from an American wife at a cocktail party, or say, in my case, a writer’s retreat. But we weren’t talking about our husbands, we were busy writing our own answers to Bhanu Kapil’s list of questions that inspired her book of poems, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Or listening, by moonlight, from the sunwarmed stone ampitheatre benches, to twenty-five women writers reading from their work, cactuses at our backs.

Or following Elizabeth Kenneday after breakfast down the trail on her Photo Stroll titled Illuminations, learning how to see. Rim lighting--morning sun wicking along the outlines of the tree’s leaves. Underlighting: otherwordly, unnatural, she said, for sunlight to radiate from the ground. Specular: blinding, off the mirror’s rim.