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MichelleDowd.org

“How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a plan, because we are working a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?

— DAVID WHYTE

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Please visit me at michelledowd.org

I have failed at more things than I have achieved. I have made nearly every mistake self-help experts warn you not to make. I am kind and loyal and I have an intense work ethic, but I am also messy, impatient, passionate and unpredictable.

Why should you trust me?

You shouldn’t.

But I want to encourage you to trust yourself.

Because curious people always have more questions than answers, and we don’t always need to know exactly where we’re going to appreciate the climb. If we can learn to navigate by our internal compass, while filtering out the noise of conformity, we can curate a life that inspires us. For me, that means showing up daily for my practice, both on and off the mat. Whatever I get wrong, no matter how many times I fail, I come back to my mat. I show up and do the work. I breathe, get grounded, re-center. I apologize, make amends, learn from my mistakes, re-direct. I forgive myself and others. I invite myself back to the practice.

I created a literary journal several years ago. The phenomenal team I work with is currently curating our 17th volume. From the beginning, our motto has been, join the conversation.

And so I do.

I grew up in a small, conservative, isolated community and escaped to Pitzer College when I was 17. Iquickly married a boy I grew up with, earned a degree in English and World Literatures and moved to Boulder at 21 to teach at the University of Colorado and work toward a PhD I didn’t quite finish. I gave birth to 4 children in rapid succession, began a newsletter/magazine called SmartKids, taught at numerous colleges before earning a tenured professorship, and bought and sold several houses before finding home. I have loved and lost and been so sad, I thought I couldn’t continue. But I was committed to the profession of teaching and to being present for my children every day of their lives, so I showed up for these two commitments with everything I had in me.

I am immensely proud of the young adults my kids have become and of the students, former and current, whom I learn from daily as an adviser of college media.

I am a professor, yogi, writer, aerialist, runner, hiker, mother, sister, friend and lover.

But mostly, I am a student of life.

We’re all just trying to figure out how to build a solid airplane to take off in. We begin again.

michelledowd.org

 

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The Bible: Part II

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson

I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle.  Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign.  If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop.  Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies.  Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop.  Show me you are listening.  Show me I matter.  Please still the tassel.

I pray this every day.  I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America.  As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.

It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s.  Maybe I’m not in tune with his words.  Maybe that’s the problem.  I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested.  I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross.  So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now.  I will read your Holy Book cover to cover.  In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

You are the word.  I am the flesh.  Let your word become my flesh.  Let my flesh become your word.

And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.  And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns.  I keep vigil.  When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.

And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could.  In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self.  And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary.  I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically,  I also go back.  I mark passages.  This is not what I have been taught.  I have been taught not to question.  I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question.  Esther makes me question.  Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:

Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition.  She didn’t remarry among her own family.  She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ.  Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones.  She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value.  Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear.  But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die.  People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.  

I don’t trust romance.

Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this.  She says if she perishes, she perishes.  But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic.  At eight, I know this.

Esther doesn’t choose the King.  The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.

The King chooses Esther.  He protects her people. She is his family of choice.

I will collect a family of choice.  I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.

Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night,  I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome.  I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word.  I read every single word.  

And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me.  God did not make that tassel stand still.  We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics.  And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.

 

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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 

 

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Write. Now.

Sometimes I feel like a poser. I stand in front of class and tell them to write. I tell them to read, read, read, read, read, and write, write, write, write. I tell them to move in the world like a writer. Observe people and places like a writer! Don’t just go into a post office! Smell that post office! Notice the tall metal cans of Stater Bros. ads and Subway coupons overflowing onto the floor! Feel the layer of grit on your mail between your fingers!

 

I give them prompts that say, Write the last line of story! Make it good! Make it poetry! Then I say, Now, write that story. And they do.

 

I go home and I read emails for an hour or more every day. I eat a bowl of soggy Cocoa Krispies. I grade papers until I can’t hold my eyes open anymore. Occasionally, I help my kids with their homework; sometimes they do not ask because they know I am swamped. Occasionally, I open up the folder on my computer desktop labeled NOVEL. Most often, I open then close it. Sometimes, like last weekend, I get drunk, open the file and read about eighty-some pages into it. I cry. I like it. It is beautiful and messy, but mostly beautiful.

 

But I am not a writer. At least not most of the time. I am teacher, a mother, a friend, a sister, a daughter, an activist, one hell of a roller-skater, but I am not a writer.

 

I am a poser. I write maybe three months a year if I’m lucky. But even during the summer when I’m supposed to be on a rigorous writing schedule, I am often paying back my kids in love and attention by dragging them to and from archery class and Egyptian summer camp and the beach and long-lost family friends.

 

I am a poser. I dream about writing all the time. I dream about my characters. I hear their voices in my head.

 

I woke up the other morning convinced I had spent the night in the bed between my main characters, Kate and Toph. Kate spooned my back, her dark hair clinging to her face while she cried in her sleep. While the rounded humps of what was left of Toph’s legs kicked me while he slept soundly, occasionally a snore sputtered from his mouth. I didn’t want to wake them, so I just lay there watching them breathe.

 

I think about them when I’m at my son’s baseball games and when I’m dragging my daughter to her piano and dance lessons. I’m thinking about them while I do dishes, or while I am grading stacks and stacks of research essays, or on my long, long commute to and from home through the rising and falling mountains of the Cajon Pass, or yes, in the post office.

 

But I am not writing. And it hurts.

 

I want to give my characters lives—the lives I have seen in my head for so many years. I want the time and energy—the head space—to finish this project. Sometimes I wonder if I have it in me. Sometimes I wonder if I will be one of those people who say, I had a novel once. Like one might say about an ant farm s/he had when s/he was seven, or a weird disease s/he once contracted and almost died from. . .

 

I had a novel once.

 

Have. I HAVE a novel. Now.

 

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self-promotion, yo

I have an essay in my brain about hard work and taking myself seriously as a writer and taking risks and being scared and excited all at the same time. It’s there; I just need to grade about 1,132 things before I write it. And help my kids with their homework. And help my friend with his cover letter. And prepare for a talk I’m giving in less than 48 hours.I love all of the millions of things I’m involved in, but I’m also sometimes worn down and stretched thin. My life is living me right now. Basically, I’m trying to work at and take seriously something I care about, writing. For now, I’m posting an essay I wrote called “An Open Letter to the Adorable Young Couple Leisurely Strolling by As I Frantically Usher My Children into My Rav4” that got published in McSweeney’s. I’m very excited about it. Please read. It’s short; I promise.

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