From the Inimitable Zadie Smith

I watched an episode of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the one where it finally occurs to the main character that she might not be the hero of her own story. (She has this realization in song.) I’m not trying to be cute when I say that I could have written 5,000 words on it — I truly had what the Internet calls “many feels.” This is what I am looking for in art: feels. Intellectual, emotional, philosophical, religious, existential feels.

But the feels have to possess a certain amount of vertical depth. It’s like lowering a stone down into the well of yourself, and the further it goes the deeper it resounds. I am resistant to a lot of the Internet, not because I disapprove but because the feelings I personally draw from it seem to me shallow and don’t lead me anywhere useful or pleasurable. A lot of the social platforms provoke feelings in me I simply don’t enjoy. For a moment I am flattered, falsely puffed up, briefly amused, painfully hurt, or infuriated. I accept it feels different for other people, but I have to gravitate to the things that really interest and excite me while I’m alive.

It’s totally selfish on my part. I’m in the middle of my life, and I just don’t have enough years left to spend a large proportion of them inside an iPhone. For one thing, I know I would be an addict. I live inside my laptop plenty enough already. I don’t have a moderate temperate with these things. If I were going to live to 150, perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much spending half of every day online. But there’s so many things I haven’t read or seen or experienced. I want that vertical experience all the time — I’m very greedy that way.

(From Zadie Smith’s email to Lena Dunham in Lenny Letter)

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10-15 years

Last Friday a few weeks before my teaching application is due I found out that I need to take a four-part standardized test.

It put me into a bit of a panic because studying for a standardized test is…not a fun way to spend my time. Especially one that I thought I didn’t have to take. I’d much rather be reading books I like than studying for a proxy of all the good things of literature.

And let me tell you, signing up for that test in itself was a huge headache. First, you sign up for the tests and pay with your credit card. THEN they send you an approval email that lets you actually schedule the test. So you’re left waiting for this email to come in. I made the mistake of signing up for all four tests at once (as you would think to do) but then THAT was a mistake. If you want to take the four tests broken up over different days, you have to sign up for each test INDIVIDUALLY. Which requires answering the same ten questions about your background FOUR TIMES. I had to call to figure this out. Then waiting for the email to come in that would let me cancel that initial test, then signing up for those four tests one at a time and waiting for those emails to come in so I could schedule the test.

It took me literally two full days of hovering over my email to get my testing schedule. (The people on the phone were very nice though.)

As much as I resisted taking this test, I accept it now. If anything, it puts me in students’ shoes and how those standardized tests matter so much. (If I don’t pass this, I definitely don’t get into the program.) I feel deep empathy for anyone in high school who has to take these kinds of tests. Through this process I remembered how easy it is to get into some warped thinking of how the test score is who you are.

And thinking it over today it made me realize that I am unwilling to jump through those hoops so blindly. There are two writing portions of the test. The temptation is study and get through it and pass. But you know what? I can’t write some critical essay analyzing texts where I don’t care. I can’t write some perfunctory essay where I answer everything but the essay has no human soul attached to it. I would also not want students to approach it in this way. And honestly I feel like that is a waste of my skills and my time.

Whatever you write, matters. Make it matter. Whatever you do in your life, make it matter. This is a very Buddhist idea. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how when you wash the dishes, you don’t think about the cup of tea you get to enjoy after and getting through the task as quickly as possible, you WASH the dishes and you ENJOY washing the dishes. This is your life, don’t waste a minute thinking it is not your life. He said the same thing about people with kids. He said the temptation is to think your time does not start until your child goes to bed but that it is important to be able to spend your time with your family and still see it as your time. I haven’t figured this out 100% yet, but I understand the deep feeling behind it. I have felt it in moments.

Anyway, after I figured that out, taking the test really doesn’t seem so bad. I also let go of the outcome of absolutely needing to pass, as in I HAVE to pass. Let’s see how it goes. I can always re-evaluate plans later. Who says plans have to be so all or nothing?

One nice thing about being in my mid-thirties is that my friends have all committed to something long enough to end up close or near where they ought to be, and I get to observe it. I have been thinking about two friends in particular after they helped me think through a problem. Being able to turn to them in utter confusion and have them walk me through different but equally important solutions made me realize that they both do such good work in the world. One is finishing up her PhD in cultural studies and she is the friend I turn to when I want to talk about all things related to race. Another friend worked for five years as a high school English teacher in the LAUSD and now works in education non-profits. I remember right after undergrad she got into all these top law schools but chose to go be a teacher instead. 10-15 years later I can see how much they’ve progressed, how they are real resources for me to turn to when I have troubling questions, and how incredibly insightful and intelligent they are because of the time they have spent thinking about these things.

And that’s so good to see.

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The Reading!

Saturday night I did my reading for Litcrawl, and it was exhilarating. I can only remember about half of what happened because I was so nervous, but it was wonderful to have this be the ending to all my experiences in my writing program.

The week leading up to the reading, I was irritable and cranky. But by the time Friday rolled around, I was eerily calm–I’d accepted all of it. It probably helped that I got to see some classmates read at the bookstore Friday morning. Also, I had practiced enough that I knew my reading well by then. I also refused to look at my reading on Saturday because I didn’t want to feel sick of it but excited when I read it. It needed to rest, become fresh and new again in my eyes.

The reading proves to me that the anticipation of things is the scariest part, the part that eats away at me the most. Once I was up there, ok, I wasn’t as comfortable as when I’m talking to a close friend, but I could still function and do and get close to how I had practiced it at home.

We had the best possible setup anyone could’ve asked for. A glamorous, cozy bar filled with mostly friends, families, and teachers. We had a mic and speakers, and the crowd (a crowd!) was quiet when we were reading—it’s not always quiet from what I’ve seen in the past—so mostly people were there for us, and that was great for me to have for the first time I was reading my work out loud to so many people.

I finished reading, and I had no sense of how I did. (Later on, I got wonderful words from a few people, words that I’ll truly keep forever.) I was surprised by how exposed I felt. The things I write have me imprinted all over it—which I think is how most people feel about their creative work. And this experience was important because it gave me a sense of what it’s like to release creative work into the world. How you have to let it go and let it be weighed in other people’s minds, how they have to grapple with it and interpret it, and I have to just let it go out into the world and not hold up my finger and say “but, but,” “no, no,” “well, actually…” Everyone was supportive, but it gave me a small, tiny sense of truly letting something go into the world, without qualifiers, without trying to control the outcome. How you have to let it go.

This is an important part of the creative process. Who would say that they write for themselves and only themselves? Of course you make stuff so that other people can witness it, to say that you were once here and alive. If you write something and never show anyone, it’s like it’s only half formed. The other half is having people interact with it. So I appreciate that opportunity and it taught me what that feels like. As frightening as it feels, I know it’s important too.

But there is, I realized, too the importance of doing the work, of the cocooning, of the self-preservation, of going deep to those places on my own. Of being able to go underground and do that work privately. The reading was fun, but it’s not my default setting. I have to switch my brain to a different frequency to do that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about David Whyte and what he calls the discipline of asking the beautiful question:

[T]he ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.

And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

I feel that in every way that writing is that for me, a place to ask the beautiful questions, the unanswerable questions. It can be scary to ask these questions because sometimes it can feel like, What is the point of asking these questions if there is no answer? Are you just being overly hopeful? Naive? Or sometimes I feel that society’s general attitude is, Don’t be stupid, don’t ask these kinds of questions.

So this is my beautiful question about readings. How do you read and remain vulnerable with your work? How do you stay open when, if you are an introvert like me, you just want to retreat? How do you read and use it as a way to connect with others a little more? This was my first reading. I’d like there to be more opportunities in the future not because of self-promotion on some grand level, but because as I get more comfortable doing this, I imagine this kind of work would feel good and fulfilling like the way writing does. It’s just another vein for that kind of communication, but how to learn how to do it, get better at it? What will be the trick that will make me feel more present and less like I’m barreling through it? I guess I’ll just have to see.

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Reading

I’ll be doing my first reading this Saturday, and I feel on the precipice. I could either fail and eat it, or I could do well. I’ve been pretty grumpy this whole week as a result of this preoccupation. I have gone shopping to look for the perfect outfit. At first I wanted something whimsical and original, and could not find it. So I have settled for simple and what looks and feels good. I went to see Jessi Klein earlier this year, and I liked what she wore. An unassuming cozy black sweater that I just felt like must’ve cost 10 million dollars. It’d be one of those sweaters in Oprah magazine. One of her favorite things. And you’d be like, Cool, I want that. And you’d look at the price tag and it’d be like $750!! Once I saw Michelle Tea on stage in boots, and I was so distracted by how nice those boots were. They did not look like cheap-ass boots you get from DSW. They looked like $1500 boots from Saks Fifth Avenue.

I notice what people wear onstage and how hard it must be to get it right. Once I saw Margaret Cho on stage and she said her pants were a little tight and then told us not to look at her camel toe. Despite being uncomfortable in her outfit, she was so funny and moving that night. She shook off her initial discomfort to radiate herself out into the audience. But then she’s a pro.

What I think I’m saying is that none of this matters in the way it currently does in my head. This will be one event of many at Litcrawl. I will be one among hundreds of people reading that night. I like that. I have friends who are coming to see me. Who are going out of their way, leaving their kids at home with their spouses, so that they can come see me. See, that puts pressure on me, like I should be some kind of pro. But I am never the pro, so none of them should expect that. Also, I have read wedding speeches without looking up my eyes from the page, and while other people in the room were not impressed, the wedding couple appreciated it because they knew that what I wrote was essentially a love letter to them on their day.

So, I guess that what I’m saying is that the thing I am most afraid of, what I assume every writer is afraid of, is writing something from the heart and having other people not like it. It’s not really about the outfit or the delivery or the stage presence that I’ve been obsessing about this week. These things help, and when someone has prepared to that point of knowing it backwards and forwards, I mean, wow. It’s a privilege to watch someone perform something that they have put so much time and effort and soul into. But if I don’t meet that bar, do I fail, do I lose?

These are the things I hope for myself when I read that night: 1. I hope I am not defensive in that “no one’s going to like it” kind of way. Questioning why I am even there. I am there. I will read. I will not fall into that womanly wanting of pleasing everyone. It matters to me. 2. Look at the people who are there: the writers from my classes who I have worked with these past few years, whose writing I have gotten to read, whose trajectories as writers are so amazing and humbling, who make me want to be a better writer, whose company I am so thankful to have — I have longed to be around a group of novelists pretty much all my life, and I am actually now in one. My friends who have told me they will show up, these are the people who saw me say, Hmm, maybe I want to be this, to I MUST BECOME A NOVELIST, to I think I’ll go be a teacher AND keep writing. My husband, my teacher, random person who didn’t know that there was going to be a reading at the bar that night who really wanted to watch the baseball game…And take it all in. Really authentically do that. 3. Feel the words that I am reading. 4. Enjoy the experience because why the fuck did I sign up to do this if not that? Enjoy the experience, even if I go down in flames, enjoy bombing if I do. (Who is the comedian who takes real pleasure in bombing?) 5. Support my classmates who have become friends who will be reading that night. Whose writings all impress me so much, no joke.

I have been making this all about me, but whenever I make things all about me, I get completely miserable. It’s just an excuse to party and do something I haven’t done in years, like a take a shot or something. I could sure use a party. Couldn’t we all?

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From Marc Maron’s Conversation with President Obama

President Obama on Marc Maron’s podcast awhile back. I still think of this snippet of conversation a lot.

Obama: I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been. And it’s sort of like an athlete—you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.

Maron: For real. You’re not pretending to be fearless.

Obama: Right, you’re not pretending to be fearless. And when you get to that point?

Maron: Freedom.

Obama: And also part of that fearlessness is because you’ve screwed up enough times that you know that—

Maron: It’s all happened.

Obama: It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged, and I lived. And that’s such a liberating feeling. It’s one of the benefits of age. It almost compensates for the fact I can’t play basketball anymore.

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Tutoring

I have been tutoring in a few public high schools in San Francisco the past three weeks, and it has been one of the best things I could do with my time. I can write and think about race and gender and class and understanding and inclusion, but it is another thing to do this work out loud and in public.

One of the tutors gave me a compliment. He said that I bring a good energy to the group and that the students seem to be responding well to me. That is a compliment that I have earned. When I started tutoring nine months ago, I made a lot of mistakes with students. Not huge mistakes that looked terrible, but my assumptions were incorrect. For example, I expected the students to respect my authority and my time, and to listen to me and follow my instructions. Ha ha ha. I should’ve realized that with a young son that this is NOT how it goes. The best way to get my son to follow the rules? Explain why it is important. Explain why brushing one’s teeth gets sugar off the teeth and keeps cavities away. Put in some knowledge so that he will have the intrinsic motivation to want to take care of himself, or at the very least plant the seeds for this for the future.

I also do the lovingkindness (metta) meditation on the BART ride over. (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/lovingkindness-metta-meditation-sylvia-boorstein/2599) I think about everyone in my life and I send them these thoughts. Though it is called a form of meditation, I see it as a form of prayer. I also do this for the people who are commuting with me, for the students and teachers I will work with, and then I open it up for the whole world. I have no idea if it “works,” in that the people who I am thinking of suddenly feel enlightened or more loved by the world, but I will say that for myself it opens up my heart for the day ahead and the people I will encounter. I use it when I am driving too because traffic stresses me out and this is one thing I do that calms me down. This reminds me that I am connected to other people and that how we all feel as a whole matters.

On the BART ride over, I will also read something that centers me and takes me out of my own preoccupations. Last week I read David Whyte’s Consolations. He has a generous perspective that resonates with me. I also will read Pema Chodron, and tomorrow I will bring a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, whose interview I just heard on On Being and loved. Writings by people who believe in things like love, peace, and wisdom. People who are not so unbearably cynical about the world that they have no belief in humanity. People who are not wholly in it for themselves.

I write all this not because I want to convert you to my particular flavor of pseudo-spirituality but because I know that it takes a lot of mental preparation to give myself over to day devoted to students. I don’t have sophisticated expectations either. I am there to 1. connect with them 2. listen and see them (so many of us go through a day without feeling seen) 3. do whatever it takes so that they can see that there is real meaning behind the work the teacher is asking them to do 4. do the best I can 5. self-reflect so that I can learn from my mistakes, figure out what is not working, and what I can do better in the future.

I like being out in the world this way. It feels empowering. The world feels less scary when I’m walking toward the things I believe in. This feels like what will be one of my lifework. I have spent the last 10+ years writing, struggling with writing, I just had my first piece published this month. It has been a tough struggle where I doubted and continue to doubt myself some of the time. But then I see that I have this other thing, where I have deep empathy for anyone who struggles with writing and where I know I can help. There are many approaches to writing. There is more than one point of entry to writing an essay. I want to show students that a flexibility with writing and with ideas makes for better writing. There is not one easy solid right answer. I want to make writing feel less rigid and structured and like a dreaded school assignment. I want to push them toward seeing how writing can make them feel alive.

But most importantly this experience has been about learning so much from the students I have worked with. How impressed I have been by all of them, every single one of them. How most of them work hard in school (and have support of their families to do this) because they want to have a better life. How this makes me think we better make damn sure that they’re getting the education they need to be able to do this.

And if someone who looks as boring and as uncool as I do can do this, then anyone can do this and should go volunteer in under-resourced schools. (I recommend volunteering through 826 Valencia.) Just know that you will probably learn more from the students than they will from you. Just be open to the experience whatever it might be and that every time will be different. You don’t have to be the coolest tutor, the funnest person, you just have to show up consistently, listen and work with them, and be yourself. And no BS because students can look through that.

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Chicken Soup

I’ve been making chicken soup for years now, ever since my son was little. He got sick all the time, and when that happened, I’d think, Uh oh, better get to Trader Joe’s and pick up some ingredients for soup. Also, it was our go-to meal when we’d travel, especially when my son was so young.

I love soups because it has the carbs, veggies, and protein all there in one bowl. But I’ve probably cooked chicken soup more than any other meal to the point where I feel pretty sick of it. I’ve done the simple version, which is buying the chicken broth, throwing chicken breasts in there and adding 2 of the mirepoix (diced carrots, celery and onion) mixes from TJ’s. I’d also do it from scratch with the whole chicken. But you know what I realized? I like the Korean (or Asian?) version much more than the ones with the carrots and celery. I don’t like the carrots because they make the soup too sweet, and I don’t like the celery because it’s too stringy sometimes. Or, like I said, maybe I’m just sick of the whole thing.

My mother-in-law’s savory version is the best. First, you cut off the skin of the chicken using scissors, and then peel and pull the skin off. Yes, it’s pretty gross to do, but I actually like chicken soup without the skin better. It gets rid of that greasy feeling, and all you’re left with is a ton of flavor if done right. Then you put the skinless chicken in the pot, cover it with water, throw in a peeled onion, two-inch piece of ginger (peel it with a spoon), and a bunch of garlic cloves. Then you boil that thing for 60 minutes so that the chicken is falling off the bone. Probably do the thing where you get it to a boil and then lower the temperature for 60 min. Also, make sure to sweep off the scum (the gray foam) after the first boil.

Take the whole chicken out. Let it cool a bit. Then shred the chicken off the bone. A whole chicken from TJ’s is about 4 lbs. That’s way more chicken than you need for a soup, so I’ll save about 1/2 the chicken meat for when I make stock. To make chicken stock, I’ll put the onion-garlic-ginger and now chicken bones into another pot, fill it with water, and put it up to boil, then down to a low simmer for about 3 hours. The best thing about a whole chicken is that it is the gift that will keep on giving.

Back in the other pot is the 60 min broth. I take the chicken meat and chop it up real good, and toss it with a bunch of chopped green onion (I’m on the belief that there can never be enough green onion in soups. I definitely like to push it), salt and pepper it like crazy, add some sesame oil (a little goes a long way, it’s mostly for the flavor), mix it with my hands, and then throw it into the pot with the broth. Add a few teaspoons of salt to the soup (1-3 teaspoons, maybe more). Then soup is done. Add some hot brown rice to it, and you’ll have the most flavorful, savory comfort food ever.

Once the chicken stock in the other pot is done three hours later (you can keep simmering up to 5 hours but who has the time? you can also add more water if the water boils off), I take out everything from the stock (chicken bones, onions, garlic, ginger) and toss them. Then I put the stock into glass containers and freeze it. I’ll also freeze the other 1/2 of the chicken meat in a plastic bag. Then later down the line, I have another batch of chicken soup ready to go.

This takes a few hours of tending, but it’s not hard, just time consuming. And you have just given yourself a whole bunch of food.

*You could omit making the chicken stock. It will make the whole process a lot easier, but I can’t walk away from chicken bones that would make perfectly good stock. My greed and dislike of wasting food gets in the way.

**I like the boil those Trader Joe’s English peas in a separate pot for something like 90 seconds and then scoop them into individual bowls of soup before serving. Somehow boiling peas in the soup broth has a smell I very much dislike.

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