American Novelist and Non-Fiction Writer
"Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find out the truth about who you are."
"Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we?ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most ? especially the ones we love most: they?re damaged, prickly and set in their ways. Also, they?ve gotten old and a little funny, which can be draining. It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is... Only together do we somehow keep coming through unsurvivable loss, the stress of never knowing how things will shake down, to the biggest miracle of all, that against all odds, we come through the end of the world, again and again ? changed but intact (more or less)... Insofar as I have any idea of ?the truth,? I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace."
"A great truth, attributed to Emily Dickinson, is that ?hope inspires the good to reveal itself.? This is almost all I ever need to remember. Gravity and sadness yank us down, and hope gives us a nudge to help one another get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity."
"In the aftermath of loss, we do what we?ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can."
"If a writer or artist creates from a place of truth and spirit and generosity, then I may be able to enter and ride this person?s train back to my own station. It?s the same with beautiful music and art."
"I?ve always loved funky rustic quilts more than elegant and maybe lovelier ones. You see the beauty of homeliness and rough patches in how they defy expectations of order and comfort. They have at the same time enormous solemnity and exuberance. They may be made of rags, torn clothes that don?t at all go together, but they somehow can be muscular and pretty. The colors are often strong, with a lot of rhythm and discipline and a crazy sense of order. They?re improvised, like jazz, where one thing leads to another, without any idea of exactly where the route will lead, except that it will refer to something else maybe already established, or about to be. Embedded in quilts and jazz are clues to escape and strength, sanctuary and warmth. The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?"
"It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again."
"To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another?s suffering where that person can see us."
"Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn. Life on earth is often a raunchy and violent experience. It can be agony just to get through the day. And yet, I do believe there is ultimately meaning in the chaos, and also in the doldrums. What I resist is not the truth but when people put a pretty bow on scary things instead of saying, ?This is a nightmare. I hate everything. I?m going to go hide in the garage.?"
"Most of us have figured out that we have to do what?s in front of us and keep doing it... Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice... We live stitch by stitch, when we?re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we?d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears."
"My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed."
"No matter what happens to us ? to our children, to our town, to our world ? we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as we ignore the commercials and advertisements and the static that the world beams at us, and understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away. Life can be wild, hard and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel. The bad news is that after the suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss. It?s a terrible system. But the good news is that then there is new life. Wildflowers bloom again... They?re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost."
"We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets... We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes... We?re social, tribal, musical animals, walking percussion instruments. Most of us do the best we can. We show up. We strive for gratitude, and try not to be such babies. And then there?s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. I hate that. In environmental ways, it?s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born."
"We so often lose our way. It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness ? having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God* as parts of life ? it?s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across. Life holds beauty, magic and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your kids are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you?ve always longed, or the mate. And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV... What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy greyhounds? It?s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, and while it?s not as bad as being embedded in the quicksand of loss, we?re filled with dread each time we notice life hotfoot it out of town. One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are... It somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin."
"What saved me was that I found gentle, loyal and hilarious companions, which is at the heart of meaning: maybe we don?t find a lot of answers to life?s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that?s even better. They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest possible version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all ? they still love you? I also learned that you didn?t come onto this earth as a perfectionist or control freak. You weren?t born a person of cringe and contraction. You were born as energy, as life, made of the same stuff as stars, blossoms, breezes. You learned contraction to survive, but that was then. You have paid through the nose ? paid but good. It is now your turn to reap."
"When you love something like reading ? or drawing or music or nature ? it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It?s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes us to a place within that feels as close as we ever get to ?home.? It?s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip ? joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion."
"Where is meaning in the meteoric passage of time, the speed in which our lives are spent? Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking."
"People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don?t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don?t know a lot, but I know this to be true. My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life ? a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read."
"To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It?s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin."
"You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that?s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that?s done, you take one more stitch ? teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte?s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you?re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning."
"To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It?s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin. You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that?s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that?s done, you take one more stitch ? teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte?s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you?re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning."
"A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn't protect itself and it doesn't hide."
"?Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding space,? to quote the late, great Zora Neale Hurston."
"A nun I know once told me she kept begging God to take her character defects away from her. After years of this prayer, God finally got back to her: I'm not going to take anything away from you, you have to give it to Me."
"A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft?you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft?you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it?s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy."
"A sober friend from Texas said once that the three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you. I hate this insight so much."
"A subterranean murmur. It may sound like one of the many separate voices that make up the sounds of a creek. Or it may come in code, oblique and sneaky, creeping in from around the corner."
"Additionally, I have spent approximately 1,736 hours of this one precious life waiting for the man to finish and pretending that felt good. And I want a refund."
"After a while the middle-aged person who lives in her head begins to talk to her soul, the kid."
"All good writers write [terrible first drafts.] This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts? I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
"Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life - it has given me me . It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. I have an organic life, finally, not necessarily the one people imagined for me, or tried to get me to have. I have the life I longed for. I have become the woman I hardly dared imagine I would be."
"Addicts and alcoholics will tell you that their recovery began when they woke up in pitiful and degraded enough shape to take Step Zero, which is: This shit has got to stop."
"Age has given me the gift of me, it just gave me what I was always longing for, which was to get to be the woman I've already dreamt of being. Which is somebody who can do rest and do hard work and be a really constant companion, a constant tender-hearted wife to myself."
"All of the great writers drank, except for Kafka and Nietzsche, neither of whom you exactly wanted to be when you grew up."
"All these people keep waxing sentimental about how fabulously well I am doing as a mother, how competent I am, but I feel inside like when you're first learning to put nail polish on your right hand with your left. You can do it, but it doesn't look all that great around the cuticles."
"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something?anything?down on paper. What I?ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head."
"Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram--it's the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar."
"Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we?ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most?especially the ones we love most: they?re damaged, prickly and set in their ways."
"Amen is how most of us end our prayers, the standard response to prayers in the synagogue and the church and the mosque. The word means And so it is or Truly. Well, that?s very nice, but what on earth does it mean? What is? The people praying are the ones saying Amen, so it?s not God saying bossily, like Judge Judy, So it is. All done. Go away. Get some help with that anger. It is us, the damaged, hopeless people, lifting up our hope, hate, gratitude, fear, and shame, saying, Boy, do we hope we are right about this God stuff."
"Also, I have a pouch below my belly, whereas I?d always had a thin waist before. Now there?s this situation down there, low and grabbable. If it had a zipper, you could store stuff in there, like a fanny pack."
"Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you?ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
"And autumn ain't so shabby for wow, either. The colors are broccoli and flame and fox fur. The tang is apples, death, and wood smoke. The rot smells faintly of grapes, of fermentation, of one element being changed alchemically into another, and the air is moist and you sleep under two down comforters in a cold room. The trails are not dusty anymore, and you get to wear your favorite sweaters."