Posts Tagged ‘Anne Lamott’

Learning to bird

April 22, 2012

This month has been Birdathon, the annual fundraiser for Golden Gate Audubon Society, where I started working in January. (Think of a walkathon, although instead of soliciting pledges for every mile you walk, you ask friends to pledge for every bird you spot.)

It’s been a good excuse for me to get outdoors and actually do some birding, rather than writing and posting and Tweeting about other people birding. Two weeks ago, I went on a four-hour trip led by a really experienced pair of birders. Today I co-led a trip for friends of mine who had never birded before but wanted to try it: We had four very experienced birders, me, one other mid-level birder, and four “baby birders.”

The BabyBirders Birdathon team / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This has gotten me thinking about the skills that go into birdwatching. It’s more than just “Boy, you really have to learn the names of a ton of birds that all look small and brown.” There are in fact a variety of different skills:
  • Peripheral vision. Walking through a wood or a meadow, you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of things to see — clouds, trees, grasses blowing in the wind. In one small corner, a bird flits between branches. A good birder notices the movement. It’s partly peripheral vision, and partly an ability to notice slight changes in  a broad panorama. It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, where you scan for the tiny figure with the red striped cap in a page that is busy with hundreds of other tiny figures.
  • Pattern recognition. One of the first things a birder notices — in a split-second, without consciously thinking — is the shape of a bird. Is that distant figure on the water shaped like some kind of duck, or some kind of cormorant?  Toddlers learn to do this when they sort plastic triangles and squares into triangle- and square-shaped holes. We adults do this every day with images from our urban environment — the hexagonal traffic sign that means “stop,” the triangular one that means “yield.” But I learned the traffic signs decades ago, and I’m only now trying to learn the shapes of birds.
  • Noticing and remembering colors. This is where I frequently get stuck. In distinguishing among similarly-shaped birds, you have to notice all these minute differences in colors. One kind of grebe has black around its eye, while another has white. One kind of gull has pink legs, while another has yellow. Not only do you need to be able to notice these differences, but you need to remember them. And the males and females often have different coloration, as do adults and juveniles. I fear my mental database is not large enough to store all the various kinds of gulls. Can I get an upgrade, please?
  • Deciphering layers of sound. The birders who led our trip today were experts at birding by ear — identifying birds just from their calls, without ever seeing them. This requires a good memory for sounds, and remembering which pattern of tweet or trill  belongs to a particular species. But it also requires an ability to isolate the calls from each other. Walking through the Oakland hills today, there were easily six or eight different birds singing at the same moment. At first all you hear is a dense wall of sound. It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra and trying to isolate the viola from all the other instruments. Musicians can do it; people who bird by ear learn to do that too.
  • Attentiveness. This underlies everything else: You have to be mentally present and paying attention. You can’t be birding and texting on your iPhone. You can’t be birding and yakking about the great new restaurant where you had dinner last night.

There are probably more. These are just the few that come to mind right now. What struck me over the past day or two were some of the similarities to learning to chant Torah. (Maybe because I’m working on a portion for my nephew’s bar mitzvah next month!)

Learning to bird and learning to chant Torah are both mental challenges with no real practical value. They won’t get you a job like learning HTML; they won’t help you go places like learning to drive a stick shift. Basically, you learn them for their own sake. They both involve memorization of a bunch of arbitrary names and words. There is pattern recognition. There is sound recognition.

I suspect that both learning to bird and learning to chant Torah challenge our middle-aged brains in similarly healthy ways. It’s like suddenly being a toddler again, forced to learn a language from scratch.

They both feel daunting at the beginning. There is no shortcut to repetition: Practice, practice, practice.

I return to that famous Anne Lamott line that inspired  the title for her great book about writing, Bird by Bird.

(Holy cow! I’ve now worked Torah, writing and birding into a single blog post! Will someone give me a stuffed panda, please?) 

When Lamott was a kid, her brother was overwhelmed by a homework assignment on birds that he had left until the last minute. He had far too many birds to write about and one night to do it. He was despondent and freaking out. Then, Lamott wrote:

My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

My own goal is to come away from each birding trip with one new bird that I have seen clearly enough and long enough to be able to remember and identify on my own. If I can add one new bird each time, I’ll eventually know a lot of them.

Today my bird was a Fox Sparrow. There were two of them, amazingly close to our trail in the hills, kicking up dirt with their feet like dogs at the beach. That’s apparently a characteristic foraging behavior. They were kicking and rustling leaves and making as much of a ruckus as you can imagine a sparrow making, and they didn’t seem to care a bit that we were about three feet away.

One of our expert guides said, “When you hear something making a lot of noise in the woods, it’s either a Fox Sparrow or a grizzly bear.”

That line is a keeper, and worth hauling out in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with woods, trails or birds.

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Shameless plug: Want to support my Birdathon team and the conservation work of Golden Gate Audubon Society? You can make a tax-deductible online donation here.

Adrienne Rich, z”l

March 29, 2012

A few words on the death this week of the poet Adrienne Rich:

Adrienne Rich /AP Photo by Stuart Lamson

I first encountered her work in the early 1970s when my high school boyfriend Ron was assigned some of her poetry. Today, almost 40 years later, I still remember the opening lines to one of those poems, “Trying to Talk With a Man,” about a marriage at the breaking point:

Out in this desert we are testing bombs
that’s why we came here.

I next encountered Rich in person, in the late 1980s, when I was living in Sacramento and involved with the local chapter of a national group called New Jewish Agenda. We were a motley collection of Jewish ex-hippies and Old Leftists and young yuppies who shared progressive politics and didn’t connect with the organized Jewish community. We needed a speaker at some kind of event… and somehow we got her phone number and called her…. and she came! All the way from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, to speak to our little group of a few dozen people, for free. Or maybe we paid her $50, I don’t remember. But she was already a National Book Award winner. She could have demanded hundreds or thousands of dollars. And she didn’t.

When I found Rich again — perhaps the most important encounter for me — it was shortly after I had given birth to my daughter. I was home with the baby, exhausted, disoriented, fearing I’d lost my identity as an independent adult forever, and wondering why I wasn’t feeling blissed out with motherhood like everyone else seemed to be. This was before the spread of mommy blogs, before Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, before all those jokey coffee table books about three-martini play dates. There was really nobody giving voice to the ambivalence I felt except maybe Anne Lamott and… Adrienne Rich, in her book of essays called “Of Woman Born.”

Now I’m looking for my copy to quote from it, and I can’t find it. But I remember an essay where she unflinchingly described the dark side of motherhood — the murderous impulses, the anger as passionate as the love. It was a stunning beam of light in the darkness. It helped me feel I wasn’t crazy. I carried Rich around in my head while I wrote my novel The Mother’s Group. If I ever get it published, she is one of the people to whom it will be dedicated.

With her death, I’m ashamed by how little I have actually read of her writing over the past four decades. And amazed by how much she affected me, especially given how little of her work I’ve read.

Adrienne Rich was one of our modern-day incarnations of a Biblical prophet — driven by a moral compass, speaking truth to power, and speaking it with precision, clarity and beauty.

May her memory be a blessing, and may there be someone like her for my daughter’s generation.

Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.

Random writing tips from Squaw

August 13, 2011

I’m back from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, feeling a bit like a space station astronaut returning to Earth, exhausted and wobble-legged. Apparently the stock market crashed and rebounded while I was out in orbit. What else happened — wars declared and resolved? Celebrities discovered and abandoned? The Messiah came, looked around, went for a Frappucino?

After my last blog post, some folks asked me to share what I learned about writing from Squaw. Mostly, I gained some new lenses through which to view the sections of my novel that need help. I think the three hours we spent each day critiquing each other’s manuscripts also made me a more attentive reader of other people’s work. (But we’ll let my writing group be the judge of that.)

Here are some snippets of my notes from the week. Pulled out of context, they seem random and trivial. And if you’ve been through an MFA program, they are probably old hat. But they were new and useful to me:

  • Dialogue in fiction is different from dialogue in real life. Tighter, sharper, with every exchange adding to the story in some way. In real life, people spend a lot of time saying things like “Nice earrings.” ” Thanks.” “Where’d you get them?” “Macy’s.” “Really?” “Uh huh.” But if you fill your novel with such stuff, readers won’t need Sominex. Novelist Janet Fitch pointed out that good dialogue is about conflict, reveals character, and illuminates the relationship between the speakers (who is stronger, weaker etc.) “In real conversation, people do everything to avoid conflict,” Fitch said. “In fictional conversation, you want to find the conflict.”
  • Characters who are most similar to you — modeled on you, the author — tend to be flat.
  • The most interesting characters are internally conflicted.
  • Every sentence can probably be shorter. (Thank you, Max Byrd.)
  • When describing a place, don’t just describe that place: Give the protagonist’s sense of that place. (Is that shady forest menacing or relaxing? It’s in the eye of the beholder.) “Use tactile perceptions to tell us about the internal life of a character,” Sands Hall told my workshop group.
  • The final item in a string of adjectives, nouns or anything else is the most powerful. “If you make a list,” Byrd said, “place the most important item at the end.” I flashed on the final line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
  • Each scene needs to change your main character in some way. This was Janet Fitch again, leading the workshop session that discussed my manuscript. “Once a protagonist has been through a scene, he or she can’t go back to the way they were before,” she said. “If they can go back, you don’t need the scene. A scene needs to start in one place emotionally and end in another.”
  • And more from Fitch: Don’t push the re-set button in fiction. Meaning, don’t have one scene after another where the same thing keeps happening to your protagonist. (I.e., the heroine gets attacked by gnomes and is left injured and confused. Then she gets attacked by rabid wolverines and is even more injured and confused. Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and BOY is she injured and confused.)
  • Jason Roberts on writing essays: “Every essay addresses a question. But if you have a complete answer, it’s not an essay. It’s a manifesto.”
  • Time and again, we were told the key to being a writer is… writing. That means writing every day, every week, for years, regardless of whether your manuscripts are praised or rejected or utterly ignored by the outside world.
  • Mark Childress: “Writing is about putting your butt in that chair and outlasting the urge to read the New York Times cover to cover or to sign up on Facebook again under a new name.”
  • Anne Lamott: “A writer’s life is about nothing happening for a very, very long time except you sit down in the same place.”
  • And Ron Carlson: “The Internet is the enemy of all writers. Just stay away from it until after two in the afternoon. The Internet is an entertainment and research device for after two in the afternoon.”

Of course, while giving us a week’s worth of rules, the Squaw Valley staff also told us that any rule can be broken for the right reason.

Lynn Freed reminded my workshop group of the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.