Almost Paradise

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.

 

If Phillip Lopate Broke Up With Me…

If I was dating Phillip Lopate and he wanted to break up with me, I hope he’d do it with this…

(Lopate’s original poem, We Who Are Your Closest Friends can be found here.)

We who are

your string of dates

feel the time

has come to tell you

that every Thursday

we have been meeting,

as a group,

to devise ways

to keep you

in perpetual uncertainty

frustration

discontent and

torture

by neither loving you

as much as you want

nor cutting you adrift.

Your true love is

in on it,

plus your boyfriend

and your ex-fiancé;

and we have pledged

to disappoint you

as long as you need us.

In announcing our

association

we realize we have

placed in your hands

a possible antidote

against uncertainty

indeed against ourselves.

But since our Thursday nights

have brought us

to a community

of purpose

rare in itself

with you as

the natural center,

we feel hopeful you

will continue to make unreasonable

demands for affection

if not as a consequence

of your disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

I love everything about baseball: The silent anticipation before each pitch. The smell of peanut shells being crushed under beer soaked hiking sandals. The crack of the bat as the pinch hitter poles a long one into deep left.  Take Me Out To the Ballgame being softly chanted during the 7th inning stretch as young and old enjoy watching bloopers on the jumbo screen. The taste of a juicy hot-dog with just the right mix of green relish, spicy mustard, and sweet ketchup. The roar of the crowd at the double play in the top of the 8th to clinch a close win. Baseball players filling out their uniforms as only a baseball player can… I love it all.

Never one to claim to know “everything about baseball,” but someone who grew up with a super fan father, I felt confident in my abilities to follow the Japanese version of America’s Favorite Pastime. And I was right. Kind of.

The game of Japanese baseball is identical to it’s American parent, but the fan experience is something different entirely. There are cute baseball players of course, but there also cute cheerleaders (yes, cheerleaders). And cute cartoon bird mascots. Tiny, cute little mini-umbrellas opened only when a run is scored. Cute babies wrapped in cute hats shaped like cute baseballs and cute birds and cute cats and cute fish. Cute little tiny baseball bats that you bang together when something exciting happens on the field. Cute bento-boxes full of cute sushi rolls. Cute chairs not suitable for my cute American sized backside. It’s a lot of cute.

But it isn’t the cute that sets this experience apart. It’s the symphonious chanting: “Every time try! Every time try!”  The pep-band playing peppy jingles that everyone knows by heart. Stands of people singing in unison celebrating base-hits, caught fly balls, stolen bases, base runs, line-drives. You name it, they celebrate it. I’ve never been to the championship football game between two big 10 colleges, but I can’t image anything being more raucous than this. It’s intoxicating.

I’ve never had more fun not watching a baseball game in my entire life. I have no idea what the final score was, but I know the home-team lost by a significant margin. And it wasn’t because I glanced at the score-board, it was because all the cacophonous joy that was being had, was had by the opposing team’s fans.

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What Would Virginia Do?

Do you remember those bracelets? You know the ones, WWJD? They were popular about 10 years ago, when the Jesus wave was reaching the dry shores of Greeley, Colorado. I mocked them then, thinking they were nothing more than a marketing scheme to get a young-fresh crowd of people into the pews. And they probably were. But the message they were meant to be spreading wasn’t too bad. And it finally reached me today.

Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not pondering what Jesus would do if his grandmother was dying because he likely would react the same way I am. No, what I mean is when I reflect on my short life and all that I’ve learned, I marvel at how much someone my grandmother’s age must know. In her lifetime, the United States of America lived through the Great Depression, helped win a world-war, put a man on the moon, produced one of the largest grossing electronic companies in the world, and elected a black president when only four years before her birth did women win the right to vote. It’s remarkable really, what can be measured in a lifetime.

My uncle alerted the family today that my grandmother, Virginia V. Johnston, isn’t doing so well. He is unsure of what the future holds for her and how much time she is choosing to stay on this Earth. So after my initial shock and a good cry, I focused my energy today on What Would Virginia Do?

When I rode past the chrysanthemum bush being carefully tended by its gardener this morning, I wondered WWVD? Would she wave hello? Stop and have a chat? Invite the gardner into her home for a spot of tea? Yes.

When I walked into my first period class with no motivation to interact with students due to some bad news I got earlier would she wallow and pout? No. Virginia would put on a smile, wrap them in a hug, and tell each and every one how special they are to her.

When I rode past the adorable school children huddled together bustling home from school would she snap a photo, or smile and say good afternoon? Yes.

I miss my grandmother. Every day. I miss the smell of her skin, and the softness of her touch. I miss how she opened her arms to every child she met as though it were her own. I miss how she stood up for herself when my grandfather was being unreasonable. I miss making strawberry jam on steamy North Carolina nights. I miss playing games in the living room by the fireplace that never hosted a fire. I miss the leather chair, still warm from her lap, that I curled up on as bed time approached. I miss the stories she would tell me about my dad as a little kid and the tiny treasures hidden around her house.

I miss her and I love her and I want to crawl into a hole and not come out for a long time. But that’s not what she would do. She would live. She would take a walk in the beautiful autumn weather. Or make some tea and read a book. She would go to her garden and tend to plants, or listen to the birds, or sing a song, or maybe all three of those things.

So that’s what I am going to do. Wipe the tears. Have a glass of beer, then tend to my garden with the care and love my grandmother would give her hydrangeas. I’ll listen to the crickets play their evening symphony and remember fondly the North Carolina nights I spent chasing fireflies with her. I’ll wave hello to the children passing by and give thanks to God for all he’s given me, because that’s What Virginia Would Do.

Love life. Be always grateful. Don’t waste time dwelling on things you cannot change. And live. That’s What Virginia Would Do.

 

American Songbirds

Something happened to me last night; I managed to transform from a rational human being into a babbling idiot.  I met two of my favorite singers: Misty Boyce and Sara Bareilles. In fact, I was so excited to chat with them that I’m pretty sure I word-vommitted all over their backstage lounge. Sigh. Anyway, I strongly urge you to listen to Misty sing in the video I included. She is amazing, but the end of the video is conclusive proof that I shouldn’t be allowed to talk to famous people. In my defense, I can’t help it. I get so excited and proud of these artists as they open their hearts to us. We are beyond privileged to be the listeners of their stories. So keep singing, and writing, and composing no matter how nerdy your fans are because you are inspiring Misty Boyce and Sara Bareilles. Thank you.

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