Happiness Is a Virtue

By Ellie Jacobi

I’m going to be happy if I have to die trying!

I paused as I thought about what I just said. A little tickle in my chest told me I just might laugh. But no, not yet. Happiness has become serious business for me.

My exemplar, Abdu’l-Bahá, has said, “It is the wish of our heavenly Father that every heart should rejoice and be filled with happiness…” I hear he often repeated the injunction, “Be happy!” And although I have been making fairly good progress in developing a couple of other virtues, this one really eludes me. Not that I can’t have fun sometimes. But I definitely have a joy deficit. I came to the conclusion early in life (I really believe it may be genetic) that if I ever feel exuberant happiness, disaster will follow. So when something wonderful happens, I look over my shoulder, shudder and sigh. Or I somehow manage to straighten up too soon under the garage door and painfully raise a large lump. “That’s what you get for being too happy!” That evens things out and I am OK again.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a frowning, morose person or the classic pessimist or a generally negative thinker. I even laugh sometimes. Most people don’t recognize my affliction because it comes across as self-control, neutrality or a very even temperament. Virtues all. Misconceptions all. How I long to feel joyous without the next moment thinking “watch out!”

So I am seriously, painstakingly, exhaustingly trying to learn joy and happiness. There is wonderful motivation in the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá. And there are clues as well. I know that I am “in reality a spiritual being and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” Aha! I must learn to live in the spirit. Now to find out what that means.

“Spiritual happiness is eternal and unfathomable” and “is the true basis of the life of man because life is created for happiness.” “Spiritual happiness is life eternal.” Now that kind of worries me. Does this mean I won’t have eternal life until I find out how to be happy? Probably not.

“Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener and our understanding less clouded.” Wow! Now that’s motivation to get to this happiness thing.

One practice I have begun is to constantly affirm, “I will be a happy and joyful being.” I think it’s helping. And I meditate on these clues: Abdu’l-Bahá tells me “Happiness is but the love of God.” ‘This great blessing and precious gift is obtained by man only through the guidance of God.” “When we find truth, constancy, fidelity and love, we are happy…” “True happiness depends on spiritual good and having the heart ever open to receive Divine bounty.” Hmmm.

I can assure you that happiness is not a selfish act. “The happiness of the world depends on man, and the happiness of man is dependent upon the spirit. “I want you to be happy…to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you.” Oh! Responsibility!

So here I am. Wanting to make others happy, wanting to love God more, wanting to live in the spirit. And wanting to experience living in spiritual joy.

“I WILL be a happy and joyful being.”

If you see me, please smile. Or laugh. Encourage me. And most of all be happy. Pray God I will achieve this before I raise another lump.

Hey! I think I feel at least a giggle coming on!

Oops, just barked my shin on the coffee table.

Sigh.

© 2017 Ellie Jacobi

Ellie is a native Madisonian, but a world citizen member of the Baha’i Faith.

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Halifax Inserimento

University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, is not an easy place to get to from the Midwest. At least it wasn’t for me on my trip there in August 2017 to begin the residency portion of an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

Inserimento” is Italian for “settling in,” literally, but represents much more than that. Inserimento is that step in the Hero’s Journey of crossing the gateway, of leaving the familiar world for the new and strange, where allies and enemies will be encountered. Inserimento sends travelers from the peak of Maslow’s Pyramid to its base, like a game of chutes and ladders. Inserimento is where the pursuit of self-actualization crashes into the search for basic shelter.

In Toronto, the customs hall was so crowded that if I had fainted, I wouldn’t have fallen down. The line for the women’s bathroom at the entry point was 20 flushes deep. I queued for the toilets, queued for the immigration gate, queued for the student visa which the agent determined I didn’t need, queued to collect my bag. It took many questions and some waiting in the wrong queues to find my way from the baggage carrousels to the domestic departures area for the Halifax flight.

I would learn later that this was the busiest day in history at the Toronto airport—a national 3-day holiday commencing that Saturday followed a construction error on Friday that severed a fiber optic connection, taking down the Internet for six hours on the Atlantic Seaboard. Planes could technically fly, but the airports couldn’t manage their passenger manifests without the Internet. The backup was slow to unwind itself.

By the time I joined the throng on Saturday evening, the concourses of the Toronto airport were awash in travelers, many of them survivors of up to 24 hours’ imprisonment. My Halifax flight was delayed, gate-changed, delayed again, until the 50 of us waiting for it bonded into a family. We watched out for each other, dozing in shifts. Finally we got our boarding call at 3 a.m. The flight arrived in Halifax at 4:00 Atlantic time. By the time I had collected my bag, the daily shuttle buses were starting.

“University of King’s College, Alexandra Dorm,” I said to the driver.

“I don’t know where that is,” he said.

“It’s part of the Dalhousie University campus,” I suggested. U-Kings had been given space on Dalhousie’s campus back in 1923, when its own campus burned to the ground.

“Ok, I know where that is. I’ll take you to Howe Hall, that’s where the conference people usually check in.”

“On Coburg Road?” I checked the address on my dorm confirmation.

“Yes.” The bus sped through the dark from the airport into the city, then over a massive bridge across the Halifax harbor. Left, right, through the dark grid of city streets, after half an hour the driver stopped his bus in front of a gray stone building. I could see a young man behind a counter inside. “Please stay till I make sure this is the right place,” I said to the driver. “The one thing I don’t want is to be left here alone in the dark with my suitcase on the sidewalk.”

Inside, the young man said he’d never heard of Alexandra Hall. “King’s College is out the door and to your left,” he said. “I’m a Dalhousie student, I’ve never been there.” I went back outside. The bus was still there, the driver in his seat, door open, but he avoided eye contact.

Do I demand his attention, demand that he solve this problem? Or just accept I’m alone in the pre-dawn drizzle with my suitcase, a crime victim in the making?

A runner jogged past. Although it was still dark I thought to myself. “If she’s running, we must be past the mugging hour.” I turned my back on the bus driver and headed downhill to the left, my wheelie case barking my calves. I came to stone gates, a driveway into a parking lot. I pulled out my phone, summoned Google Maps, asked for directions to Alexandra Hall. Google told me I was already there.

That’s when I remembered the architecture I’d seen in the summer before in Oxford, England, where I’d first heard about this graduate program. The college buildings, arranged around quadrangles, turned their backs to the outside. That stone façade ahead could well be my destination. I just needed to find the door.

I followed a low dry-stone wall to the next opening. It was just an alley between two stone buildings—but there was a large sign saying “University of King’s College.” I turned in the alley, wheeled my case a few more paces, and there I saw it—a small sign on white paper, waist-high, stapled to a flimsy wooden stand. On it were printed the words “Alex Hall.”

I turned left and there was the façade I’d seen in a Huffington blog post about “the 10 most beautiful college dorms in Canada.” Up the steps to the door, up another half flight of stairs, and finally, a check-in desk. I got my key, learned that my home for the next two weeks would be on the fourth floor, and the elevator only goes to the third. At 6am, I turned the key in my door. By 6:05 I had closed the blinds, donned my nightgown, put my sleep-pillow over my eyes, and boarded the express train to sleepytown.

Inserimento complete, when I woke I could begin climbing Maslow’s pyramid toward what I had come for—belonging, esteem, even self-actualization. But first I would have to find food.

To be continued…

© 2017 Sarah White

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“First Monday, First Person” turns 4!

In Madison? Join us on October 2nd for the fourth anniversary of our memoir salon, “First Monday, First Person”!

 

 We meet at 6pm at the Goodman South Madison Library Branch, 2222 So. Park Street. We enjoy light refreshments and stories until the librarians chase us out, close to 8pm. Writers in the first person sign up on arrival to read. Listeners are just as welcome as readers–we all need an audience! This free salon meets on the first Monday of every month. Hence the name, First Monday, First Person.

This salon grew out of my “Remember to Write” workshops, which I’ve conducted at the South Madison library and other libraries and senior centers around Madison, since 2004. By four years ago these free “get started” workshops for beginning memoir writers had gotten so popular that when I would announce registration opening for the next workshop, it would fill up within 15 minutes. Repeat students wanting to continue were leaving few seats open for new students. What to do?

That’s when I remembered a suggestion received in 2002 from Kitty Axelson-Berry, founder of the Association of Personal Historians and of Modern Memoirs in Amherst Mass., one of the first professional personal historian services. We’d just met at my first APH conference. She told me she conducted a monthly salon, called First (Whatever Day), First Person. That it worked to build community and raise awareness of her business. And besides, it was just damn pleasant. “I’ll do that someday,” I thought.

So there I was in 2013, unable to fit more “Remember to Write” workshops into my schedule and unable to fit more students into my existing classes. Time to start a salon, I realized! I would start a “three repeats, then graduate” policy for the workshops. Graduates would become the core of the salon, our place to keep in touch with each other and with our writing intentions. Because what does every writer need? A deadline and an audience.

The Goodman South Madison Library offered me a meeting room available on Monday nights, and thus First Monday, First Person was born. Indeed, my former writing students have become the core, but others have found their way to our table, and their talents expand and inspire us.

For more about my workshops, see this page–and the lovely video there that Gretta Wing Miller made for me to help promote a Power2Give campaign to fund workshops a few years ago. I think you’ll feel the power.

Join us, if you’re in Madison and free next Monday! And if you’re not–well, that’s why True Stories, Well Told exists. This is where, as a virtual community, we keep in touch with each other and with our writing intentions.

You can help me celebrate this anniversary–and keep this blog well-stocked with true stories, well told, while I pursue my time-consuming Big MFA Adventure–by submitting your writing. Submission guidelines here.

 2017 Sarah White

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Join me at the “Pinney Mini” Book Festival on Saturday, September 23!

I will be participating in an event for authors and those who WANT to be authors at the Pinney Library Mini Book Festival on Saturday, September 23, details here.

The event begins at 1:00 with a panel–poet Fabu, fantasy fiction author Lori Lee, and creative non-fiction enthusiast I–will discuss tips for getting published. An “Author Blitz” featuring readings by six local authors will follow at 2:30. Let’s nurture some community among local writers!

What tips do I have for getting published? Ah, now there’s the rub…  just back from the first residency of my Big MFA Adventure, in some ways I feel more daunted about the state of the publishing industry than ever.

What hope is there, when writing is such an introverted activity, and promoting yourself and your book is such an extroverted activity? And today, authors are expected to do more to promote their books than ever before. Events for writers have more content about building your platform than writing craft, these days.

One of the resources our excellent faculty at University of King’s College pointed us to is Jane Friedman, www.janefriedman.com. Our first assignment was to write our book proposal, and we were referred to several excellent articles on that topic in Jane’s advice archive. Schedule some time to browse there!

I do believe a book proposal is an excellent place to start, even if you are nowhere near seeking a publisher, or intend to self-publish. A book proposal is a business case for your book. It’s a positioning statement, a definition of your personal brand, a market analysis, and a pitch of your specific  book idea, all rolled into one. But even more, a book proposal is a work plan. It defines who you’re writing for and how to serve up what they will want to read. It is your touchstone when your book idea starts to get wobbly. It is your cheerleader when you start to think, “who would be interested in my words?”

Book proposals are a must for nonfiction authors like myself, because they prove the case that the book idea is worth investment (your time, the publisher’s money). And if your book proposal doesn’t convince YOU, you know it’s time to move on to your next big idea.  You can save yourself TONS of time by working on a book proposal before you begin writing that manuscript.

For fiction authors, it’s more common to write the entire book, then seek a literary agent and begin the journey to publication through query letters, book proposals, etc.

Memoirs are in a muddy area between the serious creative nonfiction book and the novel. Jane has good advice for writers of memoir here. Scroll down to “The Problem with Pitching Memoir.”

Good luck with your book! And if you’re in Madison, come see us at the Pinney Mini Book Festival on Saturday.

  • Sarah White
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Musings on Author’s Notes, Disclaimers, and Such

I have recently returned from my first residency as a student in the University of King’s College MFA-Creative Nonfiction program. One of the reasons I chose this program (let’s not speak of the attractions of a program requiring visits to Nova Scotia) is that it was born out of a respected journalism program.

Like journalists, authors of creative nonfiction write true stories. That is the essence of the creative nonfiction contract. The thin line between fact and fiction must not be crossed. And yet, what mortal can reliably distinguish the difference between the two?

In creative nonfiction, we work with the vagaries of memory, the bias of individual perspectives, and the demands of reducing complex events to comprehensible stories. “Writing nonfiction narrative is like viewing a distant butterfly on an old black-and-white TV,” writes Jack Hart in Storycraft. “Reality may exist out there, but capturing it with an imperfect recording device fuzzes the outlines, dims the colors, and neglects everything that takes place outside one narrow field of view.”

A good ally, then, is the Author’s Note or Disclaimer. This is the short section that precedes (my preference) or follows the body of the work, that tells what “narrow field of view” the author reports from, what rules we played by. Here’s where we own the truth of our writing process: Did we contract or rearrange time? Create composite characters? Exaggerate for effect, like David Sedaris who describes his stories as “realish”?

I’ve just re J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and I found his conclusion to the introduction a very good example of an honest, informative disclaimer. After reading this, we know exactly where Vance is coming from. We’re ready to be compassionate readers as we turn the page to Chapter 1.

Sometimes in my beginning memoir writing workshops, I ask my students write their disclaimers. I think it’s very helpful to decide the rules you’ll play by before the game gets underway.

Jack Hart writes, “The most important purpose of nonfiction narrative is to help us cope with a challenging world. The closer we come to portraying that world accurately, the more helpful our stories will be.” That, to me, captures why I find memoir–true stories about our lives–so compelling.

© 2017 Sarah White

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Eclipsed

As I bought my ticket to visit the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, the receptionist commented on what a slow afternoon it had been. “No one wants to be inside during the eclipse.” I enjoyed the thought that I would have the exhibits mostly to myself.

A couple of pleasant hours later, I stepped back into the streets. And there, to my surprise, I found a cluster of people–half oriented skyward like so many sunflowers, and half staring downward in the opposite direction, into handmade paper boxes. Eclipse-viewers! “May I see?” “Certainly!” And there it was, the dark little disk like a cookie with a bite out–the Eclipse as seen from 44.6° N, 63.5° W, 2:52pm. Walking the streets back toward my hotel I passed more of these friendly little knots, and cadged a few more views. I had told the art museum receptionist I didn’t care about an eclipse but in retrospect, I’m glad I saw it, when and where I did–even if I didn’t fly my Lear Jet there (with a nod to Carly Simon). And now, to WanderN Wayne’s account of his experience. – Sarah White

 

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

In several Native American stories an eclipse is a transformational lesson, in other cultures an eclipse foretells omens of future or past actions. My observation of the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 was an awe-inspiring experience of this magnificent natural spectacle. I became attentive, sensual, immersed into presence. 

With my sister, we left Madison beneath cloudy skies, driving southward, bisecting Illinois on Interstate highways, joining a flow of others searching for the projected path of eclipse totality. We ramped off the congested highway into rural Christopher, Illinois, to hide beneath a vacant carport away from skyward looking crowds gathered 20 miles further south, near Carbondale.

Monday morning dissolved into a humid, partly cloudy afternoon. From our shady retreat we occasionally stepped into full sunlight to look up with our protective eclipse glasses, their certified lenses further reducing the sun’s yellow tint into a tangerine colored orb. As the moon’s black disc moved across the sun, disturbed circadian rhythms reversed their day/night cycles; crickets chirped loudly from darkening crevices, an owl voiced displeasure or curiosity, solar-timed street lights awoke, and people interrupted their activities to peer skyward. An eerie artificialness produced by this cooling otherworld luminescence unsettled us until the moment of the eclipse totality.  

As if a hole had been punched through darkness, the sun’s corona escaped the envelope of the moon’s obstructing dark disc, piercing the edges of night towards stars outside the shadowed region of the eclipse umbra. Diminished by Earth’s atmosphere, we now could see brushstrokes of sunlight radiating outward on solar winds toward edges of the solar system. Lasting only moments of convergence, the concentric boundary of overlapping discs slipped with a sudden release of light as the moon and sun diverged along separate orbital paths. The “diamond ring” celebration of a celestial coming together. 

Maybe we are more aware, perhaps, transformed by the eclipse. This daytime Children’s Moon, seen by youngsters unable to stay up late nights, showed that the moon has a companion, a playmate in the sky. Adults who remember watching two men first walk on the moon in ’69 occasionally might look away from their busyness up to see the inspiration of poets and the subjects of photographers. The eclipse’s natural duality of dark and bright, the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy, remind us that opposites may be complementary and interdependent.

© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Nearly Normal: Surviving the Wilderness, My Family and Myself by Cea Sunrise Person

I read Nearly Normal: Surviving the Wilderness, My Family and Myself by Cea Sunrise Person and I survived.

Opportunities for do-overs are exceedingly rare in publishing, as in life. Yet Cea Sunrise Person has been given that opportunity, and with Nearly Normal has written a book that revisits and updates her first memoir, North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, HarperCollins, 2014. Both books explore her nontraditional childhood and its reverberations through her life.

I was assigned to read Nearly Normal as part of preparation for my MFA-Creative Nonfiction residency at University of King’s College-Halifax, because Cea Person is our writer-in-residence this year. Students were assigned to write a 500-word response to Person’s book. This is what I didn’t say in that essay.

Two questions necessarily demand the attention of readers of memoir—can the author write? And is his or her life interesting enough to make a book? My first reaction to Nearly Normal were immediate and negative. Coming down hard on the first question, I found the author’s voice uneven and frequently annoying. On the second, I sensed the early life of Cea Person was indeed interesting enough to make a book, if only I could find my way through her spiraling structural approach. (Flashbacks and -forwards weave three time periods together–the original childhood tale constructed of scenes omitted from the first memoir, the period after North of Normal’s first publication, and the present circa 2014.)

Nearly Normal is essentially a memoir about the aftermath of publishing her memoir, an interesting premise. It compelled me to read North of Normal. More of that book is based on interviews with people about the years Cea was too young to remember, and I find her writing in North of Normal more agreeable.

This book falls squarely in the genre of the “Awful Childhood Memoir,” joining the acclaimed Frank MCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle, plus favorites of my own such as Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. And many more. (This is a crowded genre.) Certainly the weirdness and deprivation of Person’s early years hold their own against all comers.

The conflict that gives both of Person’s memoirs their forward motion is her desire for conformity to a “normal” with only the vaguest idea of what defines “normal,” confounded by her distrust of her own intuition and instincts.

A secondary theme in both her memoirs is motherhood/what constitutes appropriate “mothering.” Here, Person falls too often into the trap of passing judgment. As Tristine Rainer says in Your Life as Story (Tarcher/Putnam 1998), “Judgments stop the unlayering of character and block our engagement with life’s mystery, including the mystery of evil…. If you include all sides of a person, the dark and the light, then it is possible to tell even ugly truths about someone without committing character assassination—if your motive is not to condemn but to understand.” Person has a legitimate bone to pick with her mother—and her whole family of origin—but fails to restrain herself from passing judgement in her writing. As a reader I feel her motive is to condemn.

I find Person’s writing best when she is reporting events in scenes, especially scenes based on interviewing others. Person’s writing is at its worst when she is reflecting on her sense of betrayal by her family. Reading Nearly Normal, I was continually hoping to get away from current-day Cea, whom I found an unreliable narrator, and to spend more time with child-Cea, whom I found appealing and resilient.

Today, 40-something Cea is an author, teacher of memoir writing, wife, and mother,  happily “normal” at last. Her book is ultimately about the search for acceptance—by outsiders, by family, and finally, oneself.

I am glad Person found the healing that expressive writing can bring, transmuting her pain into art. That is the real message of this book–if Cea can do it, so can you.

Now, how did I feel about Cea’s role as writer-in-residence at the 2017 U-King’s MFA-Creative Nonfiction residency? I’ll save those thoughts for another day.

© 2017 Sarah White

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