On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This month I'm focusing on themes that are on many people's minds these days, in many contexts.
As a bonus for reading to the end, I'm including a selection of photos celebrating the colorful autumn season that's drawing to a close.
[I said to Suzuki Roshi,] "I could listen to you for a thousand years and still not get it. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase? . . . He was not a man you could pin down, and he didn't like to give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have "some idea" of what Buddhism was. But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said, "Everything changes."
-- David Chadwick
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
-- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
-- Jalaluddin Rumi
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.
Action is the antidote to despair.
-- Joan Baez
The narrow-minded ask, “Is this man a stranger, or is he of our tribe?” but to those in whom love dwells the whole world is but one family.
-- Anonymous (often misattributed to Buddha)
No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life--and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.
-- Ocean Vuong, poet and essayist, in Poets & Writers, September/October 2016
I'm not always a sucker for freebies. I can walk right past the bank's basket of free pens, knowing I already have plenty of pens at home. I routinely decline free t-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia. Just more stuff to accumulate and eventually have to weed out.
Books, however, are another matter—I can't pass up a free one unless I'm absolutely sure I'll never read it (and even then I'll probably take it, figuring I can pass it along to someone else). So when I received an email offering a chance at a whole box of books by one of my favorite authors, there was no way I could resist!
The email was from author Lene Fogelberg, with whom I became acquainted through She Writes, an online community of women writers. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the publication of her memoir, Beautiful Affliction, Lene was offering to send a box of copies to each of two book clubs (or other groups of readers). All she asked in return was that readers consider reviewing the book on a platform of their choice, such as Goodreads, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
The first two people to respond on behalf of their book group would get the books. I don't belong to a book club, but my Monday morning yoga group (which still meets to practice weekly, even after the devastating loss of our teacher Ellie) often shares and discusses books during our post-yoga breakfasts. I had read Beautiful Affliction—Lene's gripping account of living with (and almost dying from) an undiagnosed heart condition—soon after it was published. The book quickly became one of my most-recommended memoirs (see my review here), so I jumped at the chance to share it with my yoga sisters.
Apparently I jumped quickly enough, because mine was the second response, and in no time, a box of books arrived on our front porch. I passed them out at breakfast last week, and already my friends are talking about starting a discussion group to share thoughts about the book.
Meanwhile, Lene (pronounced LEN-ay) has graciously agreed to answer some questions about life as the author of a highly-acclaimed book.
How has life changed for you and your family since the publication of Beautiful Affliction?
Before publication writing was very private. Now I am also busy engaging with readers, giving interviews, and connecting with people. So I have less time to write nowadays, and I have to be protective of that time, since it is easy to be distracted. There is also increased pressure and expectations to be met, the next novel for example. But I have realized there will always be a "next project" in the works, and I need to find peace in this lifestyle that I have chosen.
What have been the biggest surprises—either positive or negative—about being a published author?
I have been met with such amazing kindness and generosity, both from readers and fellow authors, which really has taken me by surprise many times. I have received letters from readers telling me how my story helped them that just made me weep. At the same time, the book industry is extremely competitive, even more than I thought it would be, and I think I have developed a thicker skin since publication a little over a year ago. That is the eternal dilemma of writers and poets, to maintain the sensitivity needed to write, in an industry that ultimately, like most industries, is money- and profit-centered.
Does being an author connect you with people you otherwise might not have come in contact with? If yes, can you elaborate on the experience and how it has affected you? How do you nurture those connections? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by them?
I love to connect with writers and readers, and I am grateful for many new friends that I have met, mostly on-line, this past year. It can be a little overwhelming at times, especially when I am asked to do things that I don't have time for. I have often wished I had more hours at my disposal; it is frustrating to have to say no, when I am finding myself in this business that I love and just want to shout a big Yes! to all the interesting propositions I get.
All writers have to deal with discouragement and doubt at times. How have you dealt with those negative emotions?
I have learned that many discouragements needn’t be as personal as we tend to make them. The book industry is a very tough market to break into, and every new author has to find his or her own way into it. I keep reminding myself that things will work out, and I try to stay positive at all times. In my experience rejection, even though it hurts, can be an opportunity to find an even better way for you to move forward with your project. After Beautiful Affliction was rejected by some Swedish publishers, I rewrote it in English, found a publisher in the US, and within ten weeks of publication it climbed to #3 on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list and landed me a contract with a New York Literary Agency. So one never knows what opportunities lie beyond a rejection. It might be for the best.
You mentioned the novel you're working on now. Was it difficult to shift gears from memoir writing to novel writing? Is your process any different for writing fiction?
For me, every book has its own personality and its own birth process. But I think that on the whole I have found out how I like to work. I put in a lot of work in the beginning; finding a structure, how to tell the story, and then I set out to find the voice. When I have found the tone, I write through the whole story, creating a first draft. Then the story rests. When I am ready to dig in again, I edit it thoroughly, often rewriting and rewording the whole thing, going through it at least two times. The editing takes a lot of time since it is interrupted by research as well as polishing the language and cutting and tightening the story. I try to do most of the substantial editing in the first draft, but there’s always something that leaks into the next phase, some sort of restructuring. In Beautiful Affliction I ended up cutting whole chapters that were in their final edit stage, and I never regretted it. Of course with the novel I feel more free than with the memoir, where I had to stay true to my story.
What can you tell us about the novel?
It is a hilarious and heartbreaking family drama told by a very unusual protagonist, taking place in Jakarta, where I mix East with West and urban life with ancient myths of Java.
You've also returned to writing poetry. On your blog, you wrote about losing touch with poetry during the years that your illness was undiagnosed and then finding your way back. How did finding a way out of illness reconnect you with poetry?
When I was dying and no-one (except my husband) believed me, a lot of interests seemed to slowly die with me; for example, I loved to paint and actually wanted to become an artist, but I was too weak to hold up the brush to the canvas. I had to focus my energy on surviving and taking care of our small daughters. I lived in a state of exhaustion and panic, where there was no room for writing poetry. I still feel like it's a luxury to be able to do something that I love, writing, which was the interest that stayed with me the longest through my illness. In that way my illness helped me find my biggest passion, which I am grateful for. But finding my way back to poetry is like finding a piece of myself that has been missing. Maybe one day I’ll also take up painting again.
You're a Swedish woman living in Asia, and you've also lived in the US. How do you find and sustain community when you're an "outsider"? Is it important to you to be part of a writing community? If so, where have you found that?
I have found writer friends through my blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and also through my publisher She Writes Press, where there is a great community among fellow authors. I feel it is a great time to be a writer; the days are gone when a writer had to sit alone in a chamber to write, there are lots of friends to be found out there.
My writer friends have been invaluable during the journey of publishing Beautiful Affliction, giving support and advice.
In Beautiful Affliction, you detail the formidable health challenges you've faced throughout your life. How do you care for your health now, while meeting deadlines and the other demands of the writing life and family life?
I love to go for walks, which is my preferred way of exercise. It clears my mind and lets me plan my writing or follow a trail of thoughts without interruption. In Sweden I went for long walks in the woods. In Asia we have a more urban lifestyle, but I try to go for walks in our neighborhood, especially during the dry season. Now it is wet season, so I have to get out before the rain starts or I’ll have to wait until the next day.
In what other ways do you seek—and find—balance in your life?
Expat life is a bit unbalanced, living far from extended family and friends. I love hanging out with my husband and our daughters, and we love making new friends in the places we move to. I usually spend my days writing when the girls are in school and my husband is at work, so I can spend time with them when they come home.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about Beautiful Affliction, the past year, writing, or life in general?
When I wrote Beautiful Affliction I wrote the book I felt that I would have wanted to read during the years when I felt alone and misunderstood. In a way I wrote it for my younger self to help me see beauty even though life can be really, really hard. Early on in the writing process I realized that in order to tell my story honestly, I had to be vulnerable and show some of my most difficult moments. I was very nervous before publication how this would be received, but since then I have had readers write me and tell me how learning about my struggles helped them with theirs, and that made it all worth it. I feel that reading and writing is all about connecting and learning that we are not as alone as we might think.
Thank you to Lene Fogelberg for the use of her photographs.
If you're a regular reader of HeartWood, you may have noticed I was absent last week. Like many people, I was absorbing the election results. And though I had written parts of this blog post before the election, I had to think about whether what I had written truly reflected my feelings. I concluded that it does.
Don't worry, I'm not going to get all political on you. I might do that in other settings, but that's not what this blog is for. Instead, I'd like to offer something to think about, post-election, no matter how you voted or how you feel about the outcome.
One point I think we all can agree on: the events of this election year haven't exactly promoted harmony and understanding among people with differing viewpoints. If anything, our divisions are deeper, our mistrust more pronounced, our fears more troubling.
So what now? Do we live with these bad feelings and allow them to fester? Or do we, who purportedly care about connection, goodwill and peaceful conflict resolution, do what we can to turn things in a more positive direction, while still working to further the causes we believe in? I cast my vote for the latter, and I have a suggestion to pass along for how to begin.
I can't take credit for the idea. I read about it in a short piece published in O magazine in 2011. The article made such an impression on me, I saved it, and when I re-read it recently, I thought it even more relevant today than when it was written.
In the article, author Elizabeth Lesser wrote about "otherising," the distressing and dangerous practice of ordinary people demonizing other ordinary people simply because of differences in opinions, beliefs, or other traits.
Like the recent presidential race, the 2008 election saw quite a lot of otherising, wrote Lesser. "And there was one woman doing it who bothered me the most—me! I'm a true believer in our capacity to care and cooperate, but there I was, participating in otherising rants, calling whole groups of people evil wrongdoers, though I had never talked to them."
This from a woman who cofounded the Omega Institute and has written books about love, spirituality and transformation!
Does Lesser's admission strike a chord? Be honest, now. In recent months, have you found yourself making assumptions and negative remarks about people whose political views differ from yours? I'll be surprised if you say no—I'm sure we've all done some of that.
An experience similar to my canvassing and calling encounters led Lesser to the "experiment" she wrote about in the O article. After lunching with an activist from an opposing camp and conversing cordially about family, jobs and larger concerns, Lesser began to deliberately seek out such meetings, if for no other reason than to "breed civility" in her own heart.
She came up with a few ground rules for both parties to agree to (to which I've added a little of my own spin):
You don't have to seek out strangers for these discussions; most of us have friends, neighbors and relatives who feel differently than we do about hot-button issues.
I'm not saying these conversations will be easy. It's much more comfortable to speak our minds when we're among people who nod and say, "Exactly!" But when I've dared to step outside that comfort zone and talk openly with friends and acquaintances who don't share my views, I've not only come to understand them better, I've had to think more deeply about my own opinions in order to articulate them.
So what do you think about the idea of taking an Other to lunch? Is it naïve to believe it might lead to a little more understanding? Or is it worth a try?
What difference does a difference make?
At a recent memorial for a friend and teacher, the speaker posed that question for all of us to consider as we thought about the person whose death we were mourning and whose life we were celebrating.
The question came to mind again last weekend when we attended "Leaving a Legacy of Art: The Jansma Collection" at the Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts in Fremont, Michigan. The art show and sale commemorated the lives of longtime Fremont residents Ray and Phyllis Jansma, whose lasting influence on Newaygo County's cultural scene is incalculable. Phyllis was a cellist and music teacher, Ray an architectural designer and artist who painted, sculpted and carved wood. As a tribute to this remarkable couple, their family offered some of Ray's artwork for sale, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Newaygo County Council for the Arts-Artsplace.
Before the sale, I spent some time with Lindsay Isenhart, program coordinator and curator of the Ray and Phyllis Jansma Gallery at Artsplace. A good friend of the Jansmas, Lindsay worked closely with Ray Jansma to produce a book, Ray Jansma: Designer (Blurb, 2011), that chronicles his career and archives many of his artistic works.
"The Jansmas were a pivotal influence on my life," Lindsay told me. "I started going out to their house for Tuesdays At Ray's—a Tuesday night drawing group—when I was fourteen years old. At that point in my life, I was a latchkey kid. I could have gone a very different way, but once I started drawing, my whole direction in life changed."
The weekly gathering wasn't a class; there were no lectures or formal critiques, just a bunch of local artists and art enthusiasts getting together to practice life drawing and share their creative energy.
"I had never seen a cluster of artists working together. Just getting together to do art," recalled Lindsay, who went on to be one of the first recipients of the Ray Jansma Scholarship for Visual Fine Arts, through the Fremont Area Community Foundation, and to study fine arts and graphic design at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids and Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy.
"Through the Tuesday nights, I got to know Phyllis, and on a regular basis went out to what they called Tea Time at the Jansmas," Lindsay said. "People could show up from anywhere at their house during tea time. Phyllis would regale us with stories and talk about politics, and Ray would take me out to his studio afterward."
The Jansmas' talents and personalities drew people to them, but their home was an added attraction. Located on a winding road north of Fremont, the house—which Ray designed in the early 1950s—started out as a modest 975-square-foot split level. But as Ray's career grew, so did the house, with additions reflecting the varied styles of his architectural design projects. On one end is a master bedroom suite where the centerpiece was the magnificent carved angel bed offered for sale at the recent event.
A tower rises from the middle of the house, looking like something from a storybook. Indeed, guests sometimes felt they were "visiting another world," said Lindsay. "It was like Alice in Wonderland. I got to go to this fairytale place where we were surrounded by art, music, and everything you could imagine to play with."
Like the house, Ray's studio was out-of-the-ordinary, decorated with architectural elements from some of his design projects. One side of the studio was originally used for building a sailboat—a 32-foot Tahiti ketch christened the Maid of Ramshorn, which Ray and Phyllis sailed around Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (and Ray sometimes used as a floating office for design jobs in port towns). Once the boat was finished and launched in 1975, the former boat shed became a working space for various art projects, both Ray's and other artists'.
"He'd share whatever he had going on, share his studio space, encourage others to come and work there," said Lindsay. The list of working artists who have been influenced by Ray is long and varied and includes Ann Arbor potter Autumn Aslakson; Stratford, Ontario-based illustrator and graphic designer Scott McKowen; ; New Mexico painter Jack Smith; multimedia artist James Magee of El Paso, Texas (who also paints as Annabel Livermore) and many others.
"He inspired so many artists because he was always working," said Lindsay. "His work ethic was amazing. He didn't watch TV, didn't golf. He'd be in his studio, working on a project or out sketching barns or downtown businesses or putting in time for our organization. He would come here to Artsplace at least once a week and participate, whether it was just helping paint a sign or helping teach a class, he was hands-on involved."
Meanwhile, Phyllis inspired a long line of musicians, not only as a piano and cello teacher, but also through the Chamber Music for Fun program she initiated at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan.
The Jansma children, too, benefited from the creative environment their parents provided. Tim became a violin, viola and cello maker, Jon a chemical engineer for GE, and Jennifer a piano technician who decorated her Ray-designed home with ornamental trim she carved herself and paving stones she hand-cast.
"I've never met a family that has made such an impact," said Lindsay. "And to be found in such a tiny little community is a rare thing."
The Jansmas made a difference. And what a difference that difference made!
Who has made a difference in your life? In your community? What can you do to keep their legacy alive? As you consider these questions, take a look at more of Ray Jansma's artistry.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.