Seek the Encounter

This weekend I was lucky enough to participate in a three-day intensive improv workshop with the insurmountably talented Rob Adler. As part of the exercise, he asked us to encapsulate our experience into words. “Reflect on the experience, ” he said.  “Hold onto it by sharing it.” As much as I want to bask in the glow of the work we did as an ensemble and keep the work to myself, Rob is right. I have to open the box and let it out, it is the only way to hold onto it.

Seek the Encounter

What is the where?

the soft give of the laminate floor closing the space between our feet and it

squeaks of barefoot toes softly padding toward old friends

and new

sense the space around us, dense, pliable, malleable

porous streams of people weaving themselves into my space

then out

then in again, but this time

they stop

take a collective breath

and see me.

Seek the encounter.

where the

dull hum of florescent lights cast tungsten tones onto dirty, beige walls

see the color: orange, now yellow, now red, now green, now black

now orange again

one at a time we move through space, between us and feel

blind faith leading us away from our limitations

embrace the fear, the sting of unknown, heightened senses

see with your ears

then stop

take a collective breath

and hear me.

Seek the encounter.

where the

palpable beats of our hearts, rhythmic and tribal move us as one organism

driven by the collective experience

we mirror

follow no leader, just see, and hear, and feel, and move

toward one another, morphing, changing, transforming

again and again and again until you are me and I am you and we are we

hand in hand we sprint toward the unknown

then stop

take a collective breath

and become

one.

Home: A Story in Three Acts

A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a piece of writing in front of people. It was scary and exciting.  I expected a few people, maybe 10, in a coffee shop who may or may not be interested in hearing my story. Instead, there were 150 people crammed into a small bar in mid-town Tokyo listening intently as I shared my writing.

I was slotted the second to last spot on a Sunday night and as the night wore on I worried more and more that the people in the audience would grow tired and leave. Actually, I secretly hoped they would. They stayed. When it was my turn, I pretended to be confident and took the stage, sounds of Alice in Chains’ epic ballad “Don`t Follow” pounding in my head. Breathed in. Breathed out. And shared my story:

Home, A story in 3 Acts

Act 1: The Fuckin’ Yankees

Slam! The screen door shuttered on it’s hinges. Causing the whole house to shake. Shocked by the tremor, my attention swiftly shifted from the Charles in Charge reruns I was watching to 

to the screen door. 

“The fuckin’ Yankees won again!” Dad announced. He’d just been outside, cleansing his chi. His doctor told him that he needed to walk barefoot in the garden to reduce his hypertension. He does this. Every summer  evening. He carries with him, his one companion: A rusty old transistor radio. The one his father gave him after the war. Sounds of crackly a.m. radio baseball sneak out of Dad’s pocket as he enters the kitchen.

“I swear on my father’s grave, the Orioles’ ONE goal in life is to lose to the fuckin’ Yankees!”

“Hmmm” says my mother, calmly snapping peas at the kitchen sink. 40 years of marriage has taught her to react subtly when he is being irrational. Especially when it’s about sports. Especially, especially when those sports are the Baltimore Orioles.

“What happened this time?” She asked

“Derek Jeter, That`s what happened. They can’t seem to stop Derek “f-in” Jeter. ”

“Well, Maybe They will stop `em tomorrow.” I offered, one eye still on Charles. 

Next to me my younger brother, Kevin, was too busy playing with his new guitar to care about the scuffle in the kitchen. 

“One can dream,” Mom said turning her attention back to the peas.

This was our routine, my parents me. Dad would complain loudly about New York sporting teams and mom would hum show tunes to drown out the din. Kevin played guitar while I contemplated the latest episode of Growing Pains. That kitchen, with its mustard yellow walls and cherrywood cabinets is where we became a home and where I learned what it meant to be home. It is where I learned to love, negotiate, laugh, cry, and listen.

I grew up in sunny Colorado, riding bikes, climbing trees, building snowmen with my little brother, sprinting up mountains as fast as my legs could carry me. Its where I kissed the neighbor boy for the very first time and fell in love on my front lawn.

Summer days spent skipping stones into glassy mountain streams and evenings in dusty old theaters learning everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein. 

Its where I learned how NOT to be a successful college student, and how to lie to my parents about being kicked out. Colorado is where I learned the word integrity the hard way, and that failures are stepping stones to success and not life ruining events. It’s where I learned that home is where they have to take you in no matter what. Because like The Rocky mountains, silent and majestic, home is a place for new beginnings and fresh starts. 

Act 2: What`s that smell?

Sniff!

“Woah. What the hell is that?” I asked as I stepped off the plane into the dense heat soaked Bombay summer.

“Nothing mad`am. Burning trash only.” he said with a dismissive wiggle of his head. 

“Oh.” I replied. But I wasn’t convinced. I’d never smelled anything like it before. It smelled like steamy old rotten bananas mixed with the sour blood of a freshly slaughtered goat. 

Heinous.

India is like that; It’s an assault to the senses. We made our way through the busy airport and after only 2.5 hours of waiting for luggage we were finally set free into the steaming buzzing streets of Mumbai.

He turned, looked at me, and with arms wide open he breathed, “Welcome home mad`am.”

“Thank you, Suraj.” I canted.

It hit me then.

This is home?  Where the pollution-soaked-sun casts long shadows of overstuffed rickshaws busily buzzing people and sugarcane and cows?

Where Ravens the size of small children incessantly chatter and debate about who gets the last morsel of decapitated rat? 

And where limbless people writhe and spill onto dirty dusty roads fighting street dogs for discarded bits of chicken biryani?

“This can’t be home.” I thought. “I won`t survive here.”

And I almost didn`t.

One year and three months into India, I was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Like American Civil War typhoid Mary contamination thousands of people typhoid fever. I’d managed to contract the disease even though I’d had the vaccination. My doctor, Dr. Ajit Sadi, “it’s like this Andrea. A vaccine is like a small umbrella in monsoon. You’ll still be getting wet, but you won’t get as wet.”

“Oh. Great.”

The hospital became my home that week. The nurses my sisters, the doctors my parents. It wasn’t so bad. There were catered meals and   wifi. But I was glad when it was time to unhook the iv be discharged back my real life into my real home. Unfortunately, three weeks later, I stumbled into the hospital again. This time it was encephalitis. The scary kind. The kind that kills people.

“Welcome home, Andrea! We cannot keep you away!”

I would’ve smiled, but it hurt to move.

“Come. We’ve two new nurses just learning how to insert IV’s. They are very excited to meet you.”

“Perfect! You know how much I enjoy needles. This should be fun.” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could through the encephalitic fog. 

“What a good attitude you’ve got Andrea. India has kept well,”

And he was right. Despite two deadly illnesses and countless rounds of antibiotics India was keeping me well, because it’s there that I  learned how to build a home. How to create my own family. I molded important relationships with the shoe guy and the ice guy and the knife walla, the coconut lady, and the fruit guy, and the little kid who sold gum and old Bollywood playing cards. I grew attached the giant fruit bat family that lived in a tree by my window and the fleet of stray dogs who stood guard every night.

India is where I learned to embrace heat, and noise, and how to celebrate multiple deities, seemingly every weekend singning, “Om Gan Gana pata ye Namo Namah…shri sidd tviyak namo namaha ashta vinaiyak namo nahama ganpatti bapa morya…” It is where I learned to steer myself around noisy firecrackers, and goats, cows, dogs, burning piles of garbage, people, people, shit,more people, chickens, crows, more shit, bats, palm trees, discarded bits of goat, elaborate wedding processions, and even the occasional elephant.

The heart pounding deafening drum beats that echo down the dusty cobblestone lanes became my pulse. India was my heart. It’s where I learned how to really, truly, love being surrounded by the best of humanity.

And worst of humanity.

Because India, that is where I learned the truth about corruption. And blatant bigotry. And racism. And rage.

So much rage.

My home was becoming hostile and turning me into a person I didn’t recognize. One who became irrationally upset with tiny-insignificant things. So irrational that when doors were slammed, they rattled the whole house. I knew that as much as I loved India, and as much as I wanted our relationship to work, we weren`t healthy together. So with a heavy heart I broke up with home sought younger, fresher pastures.

Act 3: Silent Sardines

“Do you hear that?” he whispered

“What? I don’t hear anything,” she replied. 

“That. There. Listen.” He said, tilting his head toward a distant sound. 

They let the silence sit between them for a while before she reached over to him.

“I miss India.” she said.

“I know you do. But this is home now. You’ll get used to it.”

“When?”

“When you wake up.”

“What?”

“When you wake up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I mean, when you wake up from dream you are in, you will get used to Tokyo. You will adjust to the silence. You will learn to embrace the cold compartmentalized disinterested public and you will see that it is respect for your space and not you being snubbed.

You will learn to love clean air, blue skies and pouty pink blossoms in spring. You will learn to love balls of rice and seaweed and riding your bike on vacant streets in below freezing weather. The rocking hum of tightly packed tin trains carting silent sardines downstream will start to feel safe. Like a communal hug. Silent swarms of silverly salary men and new moms with tiny button babies that rock and sway in the ebb and flow of the foot traffic, will carry you with them if you let them.

Listen.

Home calls to you when you hear the train conductor whisper, “Kichijoji, Kichijoji desu.” When you wake up and realize that you made this move on purpose. That just because you shifted locations doesn’t mean you shifted homes. Open your eyes and look around and you will find that home has been here all along. It’s in the song of the mountains and the laughter of school children being called inside with the sweet tune of home. It’s the trees you climb in Nogawa park and the Indian wool blanket you wrap up in at night. It’s in the 4:30 am sun rise and the dense heat of Tokyo Augusts. Home is the crack of the baseball bat when the pitcher for the Swallows gives up another base hit. It’s what you carried here from Colorado, and India.

It’s here.

Home is what you bring with you, and home is what you learn.

So wake up!

Stop fighting, and see it.

It’s waiting for you.

And those tremors you feel, those are probably just the fucking yankees.”

I finished reading. Swallowed back tears. Bolted from the stage directly to the bar where a cold gin and tonic was waiting for me. I didn’t hear the applause or see the partial standing ovation. People had to tell me about that later. I am glad I did it. Felt good to share a part of me with strangers, to get good feedback. The writing isn’t as polished as I want it to be, but I guess that is the nature of writing. It is cyclical. I will come back around to this piece, and when I do, I will find home waiting for me.

This is me reading. Photo credit, Sam Hubble.
This is me reading. Photo credit, Sam Hubble.

Limerick

As it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I am a writing teacher, I thought it apt to teach the art of the limerick to my middle school students. While their poems themed mostly around farts and each other, mine was more an homage of thanks to dear St. Pat for giving me one day a year to make inappropriate jokes with my students. Here’s to you St. Patrick! (Also, thanks for bringing Christianity to Ireland or whatever.)

Nothing better than teaching a limerick,

To those kids who pretend to be so sick,

We can all thank St. Pat,

Don our caps tip our hat,

To that guy we all love, dear St. Patrick

-Andrea Johnston

End of the World

“No regrets. Compromise. Sun will set. Sun will rise. And we will sing like it’s the end of the world. Raise our voices so they’ll finally be heard. Try to write us off, it just started to kick in and we’ll never buy the life you’re selling.”

-Kevin Johnston, The Bright Silence

Shed Some Light

My brother, Kevin, embarked on an incredible journey of self-discovery last March. He quit his job in Brooklyn, packed a backpack full of his CD’s grabbed his guitar and boarded a flight to Germany to play music. It was his first solo tour, and his first time traveling alone in Europe. I was able to join him on his trip for one incredible week. The time went by so quickly and when it was time to part, I was not the least bit interested in returning to India. An older sister to my core, I wanted nothing more than to be there to support my little bro. After all, I was the only person in the audience who knew his music by heart. How could he possibly survive without me?

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Cut to a year later. His first tour turned into a second tour in the fall, and another this coming March. The players are the same, but the play is so much different. Last March, I left him not knowing what his future held, and this March I know. I know that his will, his creativity, and his resourcefulness will lead him in the direction he is meant to go. It’s scary to leave the known and embark into the unfamiliar but this time, he’s got a will to succeed he’s not had before. His drive to make it is stronger than ever. It’s heartwarming to know he can not only survive without me, he can thrive on his own. Best gift a sister can ask for.

So, in the immortal words of Kevin Johnston, “Things are working out different than you thought, now you realize.”

Go forth and conquer little brother. Your family is incredibly proud of you.

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Almost Paradise

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When you think of paradise, what do you picture? Sandy beaches with coconut palms waving in the breeze? Peaceful, clear water that looks as though it’s made of glass? That’s usually what I picture, but on Thursday I think I changed my mind. I think paradise looks more like this:

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and this

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and this

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To me, paradise is 140 American 7th graders, gathered together at Ground Zero in Hiroshima, Japan 70 years after the United States annihilated the city. I know this may sound odd because to most people, the thought of 140 7th graders anywhere at any time conjures images of panic and pre-teen chaos. Images of Hiroshima City following the bomb drop are heartbreaking, sickening. But to me, this image of young kids learning about and paying tribute to those who lost their lives in an unthinkable tragedy, is beautiful. To me, that’s paradise.

Let me give you some background:

In class we’ve been studying the Pacific War and I’ve asked kids questions like; Can war be justified? How does war effect people? What are the long term consequences of war? etc. We’ve studied strategy, survivor stories, the science behind the Atomic Bomb, and Hiroshima’s heroic desire to become a symbol of world peace. Then, we took the kids to see the city firsthand. To hear the stories, see the remnants,  and feel the magnitude of the event. They felt it. My amazing thirteens listened to the lost and they felt it: an overwhelming sense of the need for peace.

If you haven’t visited the Peace Park, Museum, or Victims Memorial it’s worth a visit. Hiroshima is a beautiful city with meandering rivers and parks. Peaceful gatherings of friends and families can be seen strolling past Hiroshima Dome, pondering the past, looking toward the future. It’s hard to believe that in my aunt’s lifetime, this stunning jewel of a city was a place of horror and indescribable inhumanity.  That’s what makes Hiroshima so remarkable. Rather than harbor anger and hatred, Hiroshima retaliated with a desire to be a symbol of peace and to bring an end to nuclear warfare.

Hiroshima is such a powerful reminder of the wreckless remnants of war and the overwhelming need for world compassion that when I snapped the photo of 140 13-year-olds in that remarkable place, I felt a sense of peace.

It really is paradise.

To learn more about Hiroshima City, please visit http://visithiroshima.net/world_heritage/a-bomb_dome.html

Mary Miller on Her Writing Process

Excellent insight on the horror and beauty that is the writing process.

JMWW

mary-millerMary Miller is the author of the short story collection Big World. Her work has been published in Mcsweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, the Oxford American, and other journals. A former Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas, she currently serves as the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. The Last Days of California is her first novel.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA. I really enjoyed it. In your acknowledgements, you thank your agent for wanting “to represent a woman who said she would always and only be a short story writer.” Can you talk a little about that?

Mary Miller: When my agent asked to represent me, I wasn’t sure why. I was writing short stories exclusively and had given up on the idea of writing a novel. They just seemed impossible. I’d heard about people working…

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The Story of 13

A big part of my job is to inspire young minds to think and innovate and write and create. It’s great. I love that part of my job. The other, bigger part of my job is the part where I have to set all my agendas aside and just listen. One of those times was today:

“It’s cold today,” she said.

“It is. Really cold.” I muttered, peering over my computer screen at her round, worried face. “You ok?”

“No. Yes. Kind of I guess. I don’t know. No.” she replied.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, although I already knew. She’d been asked out by the most popular boy in the 7th grade and some of the other girls were jealous and dealing with their envy in ways only 13 year old girls can.

“So, you know that like Sam asked me out and like we did. I mean, people my age don’t go on dates right? So it wasn’t a date, it was just going to McDonald’s and whatever, but Jenny was there too and like she always talks because she’s like that and it was weird and I didn’t talk much to Sam because Jenny was dominating the conversation and she’s like my best friend and so it’s ok I guess. Or not. I don’t know.”

“Ok. So, you are upset that Jenny hi-jacked the conversation?”

“No! I mean, maybe a little, but that’s not what’s wrong.”

“Ok.” I gently replied. “What’s really wrong?”

“So, like, we all went out and then a few days later I learned that Heather asked Julie and Sam to dinner and they all went and I wasn’t invited and like Heather and Julie were whispering about it the next day in writing class and I didn’t know why they had invited Sam out to dinner. I mean I know that Heather and Sam are like good friends, so I don’t think they did it to hurt my feelings, but I kind of think that Heather likes Sam and so, ya.”

“Ok. So you are upset that Heather and Julie asked Sam to dinner after he had gone on a date with you. Is that right?”

“Kinda, ya.”

“So, are you upset with Sam, or with Heather and Julie? Or both?”

“I guess Heather and Julie, but I don’t know why. I mean I shouldn’t be bothered that they asked Sam to dinner, they are friends. But it does bother me and hurts my feelings. Why do I care? Why did they do that? Why does this hurt my feelings? Should I worry?”

She looked at me with green eyes as big as saucers, and even though I am not a mother, I felt like one at that moment. All I wanted to do was sweep her into a hug and shelter her from the mean girls. But I didn’t. She didn’t need protection, she needed tools. Tools on how to manage hurt and betrayal and love and friends because she will be combating those demons her whole life.  She needed to know that it’s ok to feel hurt and confused because being thirteen is all about being hurt and confused. She needed to know that she was feeling these things because her finely tuned emotional intuition was identifying something fishy. And when they identify something fishy it usually means something isn’t right.

“Well, that depends on what you want to worry about. Think about how you want to spend your energy. Do you want to devote energy to your relationship with Sam or spend time figuring out the motivations of jealous friends?”

“Obviously I want a good relationship with Sam. But I want the other girls to like me too. I don’t know what to do.”

“That’s tricky. Wanting people to like you is something everyone wants, but there comes a point at which you have to choose. Whose approval do you seek most and is that person worthy of your time and energy?”

She gazed at me again. This time her big eyes were full of determination.

“Sam. He’s worth it.”

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind then.”

“Ya. For now.”

She paused before leaving the room, “Ms. Johnston?”

“Ya.”

“Do you think my story of 13 will be as interesting as yours was?” she asked, with the honesty that only comes with youth.

“Honey,” I smiled, “your story of 13 is unfolding in the most astounding of ways. It will be, without a doubt, one of the most interesting stories of your life.”

“Ya, I guess. Thanks Ms. Johnston.”

After she left, I couldn’t help but think of my own story of 13. The twists, the turns, the awkward touches and glances. The weird teeth and hair. That annoying numbing feeling that comes with the ever shifting rift between wanting to stay little and wanting to be grown up. When I think about it, about my story of 13, I can’t help but be thankful for all the teachers who helped me through my awkwardness. Without them, I would not be the teacher I am today.